Philippines president declares martial law in Mindanao province

Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippines.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center). CREDIT: AP Photo/Aaron Favila
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center). CREDIT: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law Tuesday night in the country’s second largest island after brutal fighting broke out between the army and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-affiliated militants — further raising human rights concerns in the country.

The island of Mindanao — which will be under martial law for 60 days — has been the site of ongoing skirmishes between Philippine troops and police against the ISIS-backed Maute militant group. On Tuesday, nearly 50 gunmen entered Marawi City, which has a Muslim-majority population and occupied city hall, a hospital, and a jail. They allegedly raised a black Islamic State-style flag at the gate of a hospital. The gunmen also burned buildings, according to Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Power was also cut, the Associated Press reported.

Fighting purportedly broke out after government troops carried out a search for and attacked a hideout used by Muslim extremist leader Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of an alliance in the southern Philippines. The U.S. State Department has offered up to $5 million for his capture for his alleged involvement in terrorist acts against U.S. nationals and other foreign nationals in the Philippines.

So far, two soldiers and one police officer were killed and 12 wounded in clashes in Marawi City, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, according to Philippines-based ABS-CBN news.

“In order to suppress lawless violence and rebellion and for public safety, it is necessary to declare Martial Law in the entire island of Mindanao, including Sulu, Jolo and Tawi-Tawi for a period of 60 days,” an official statement read. “The government is in full control of the situation and is fully aware that the Maute/Isis and similar groups have the capability, though limited, to disturb the peace; these have shown no hesitation in causing havoc, taking innocent lives and destroying property.”

The official government statement came as President Duterte embarked on a four-day official visit to Moscow, where he was set to meet with President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella has since said Duterte would cut his trip short and return to Manila after meeting with Putin. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano will stay behind to meet with Medvedev.

Leni Robredo, the Vice President of the Philippines, tweeted that her office would begin relief operations and that the incident would “soon end.”

Under martial law, government troops will “carry out searches and arrests and detain rebel suspects more quickly,” Lorenzana said, while “offensives would also be staged in other southern provinces plagued by extremist groups.”

Fighting in Marawi comes weeks after the U.S. government issued a travel advisory to tourists about “kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals” in the Palawan Province in western Philippines. Abu Sayyaf militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State have a stronghold in Puerto Princesa, a tourist destination in Palawan.

Duterte has previously threatened to impose martial law in his “war on drugs” against users and dealers. Under his leadership, an estimated 7,000 people have been killed in extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch reported, with official police reports asserting self-defense to justify police killings. “To bolster their claims, the police routinely planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets next to the victims’ bodies. No one has been meaningfully investigated, let alone prosecuted, for these killings,” the HRW report from March noted.