The United States Embassy issued a warning to U.S. citizens in a southern Philippine city on Wednesday after terrorists linked to the Islamic State swept through the region, beheading a police chief, burning buildings, seizing a Catholic priest and his worshippers and raising the black flag of ISIS, officials said.
The embassy suspended mission personnel travel to Mindanao as they analyzed the chaos that has left at least 21 people dead.
“While the U.S. Embassy has no information that the events in Marawi City represent a direct threat to U.S. citizens or U.S. interests in the Philippines, we encourage U.S. citizens to review personal security plans, avoid large crowds and gatherings, and remain vigilant at all times,” the embassy said in a statement.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law for 60 days across the southern third of the nation — home to 22 million people — and vowed to take tough action.
“We are in a state of emergency,” Duterte said Wednesday after he cut short a trip to Moscow and flew back to Manila. “I have a serious problem in Mindanao and the ISIS footprints are everywhere.”
He threatened to extend it to the whole country “in order to protect the people.”
“If I think that ISIS has taken a foothold also in Luzon, and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country,” Duterte said Wednesday.
The violence erupted Tuesday after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who has pledged allegiance to IS. He is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
On Tuesday after a bungled raid by security forces on a Maute hideout, which spiraled into chaos, with gunmen seizing bridges, roads and buildings and taking Christians hostage.
The Catholic church said militants were using Christians and a priest as human shields and had contacted cardinals with threats to execute hostages unless government troops withdrew.
The militants called for reinforcements and around 100 gunmen entered Marawi, a mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Duterte said a local police chief was stopped at a militant checkpoint and beheaded.
Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena said the militants forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers.
Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said 13 militants had been killed, and that five soldiers had died and 31 others were wounded. Other officials said a security guard and two policemen were also killed, including the beheaded police chief.
Two soldiers and a policeman were killed and 12 wounded amid chaos in Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of about 200,000 people, where members of the Maute militant group took control of buildings and set fire to a school, a church and a detention facility.
The Maute and Abu Sayyaf militant groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and have proved fierce opponents for the military as Duterte seeks to crush extremists and prevent radical Islamist ideology from spreading in the Philippines.
Duterte has warned repeatedly that Mindanao, an impoverished, restive region the size of South Korea, was at risk of “contamination” by Islamic State fighters driven out of Iraq and Syria.
Arevalo said troops had cleared militants from a hospital, the city hall and Mindanao State University. About 120 civilians were rescued from the hospital, the military said.
Thousands of people have fled the city, said Mary Jo Henry, an emergency response official. She quoted another official as saying Marawi was like “a ghost town.”
Broadcaster ABS-CBN showed people crammed inside and on top of public vehicles leaving the area, and some walking on foot with their belongings as they passed through a security checkpoint manned by soldiers.
Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group and was wounded by a military airstrike in January.
Troops sealed off major entry and exit points to prevent Hapilon from escaping, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press late Tuesday.
“We will conduct house-to-house clearing and do everything to remove the threat there. We can do that easily,” Ano said, but added it was more difficult in an urban setting because of the need to avoid civilian casualties.
Duterte met late Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he is counting on Russia to supply weapons for the Philippines to fight terrorism.
“Of course, our country needs modern weapons, we had orders in the United States, but now the situation there is not very smooth and in order to fight the Islamic State, with their units and factions, we need modern weapons,” he said, according to Russian state news agency Tass.
While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the south, Duterte has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups which have tried to align with the Islamic State group.
At least one of those smaller groups, the Maute, was involved in the Marawi siege. It’s one of less than a dozen new armed Muslim groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and formed a loose alliance, with Hapilon reportedly designated as the alliance’s leader.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to Islamist militants on Friday to abandon hostilities and start dialogue in an effort to end their bloody occupation of a southern city that experts called a major blow to regional security.
Duterte said the presence of foreign fighters in street battles that have raged since Tuesday in Marawi City was proof that Islamic State had gained a foothold on the restive island of Mindanao, but there was still a chance for peace.
“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” Solicitor General Jose Calida told reporters in explaining why martial law was imposed.
“It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria.”
Most of Marawi’s 200,000 inhabitants fled after the gunmen ran amok on Tuesday, seizing and torching buildings, freeing militants from jails and taking a priest and churchgoers hostage at the city’s cathedral.Duterte has dealt with separatist unrest during his 22 years as mayor in Mindanao but the Maute’s rise and signs that it has ties to another group, the Abu Sayyaf, present one of the biggest challenges of a presidency won on promises to fight drugs and lawlessness.