A Philippine Roman Catholic church leader says a priest and several churchgoers have been taken hostage from a cathedral by gunmen in a southern city.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, and another church official said this afternoon that gunmen forced their way into a cathedral in Marawi city and seized the Rev. Chito Suganob and more than a dozen churchgoers and staff as fighting raged between government troops and Muslim militants.
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in southern Mindanao province, promising a “harsh” Marcos-style crackdown after Islamic State-aligned militants attacked Marawi and raised the black IS flag at its town hall.
The president cut short his visit to Russia after as many as 100 gunmen laid siege to the city of 200,000, the city hall, a hospital, the jail, a college and some houses in one of the boldest attacks seen in years.
The militant strike occurred after government troops raided the hide-out of Isnilon Hapilon, a 51-year-old veteran commander of the Philippines brutal Abu Sayyaf terror outfit, and the extremists called in reinforcements from an aligned group known as The Maute.
Hapilon was named the emir of the Islamic State forces of the Philippines in April 2016, a few months after the Philippines militant group pledged allegiance to IS.
He is on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list and has a US$5million bounty on his head.
Defence Secretary Delfina Lorenzano said the government remained in control of Marawi city and other southern trouble spots but President Duterte’s martial law declaration would help security forces carry out searches and arrests and detain rebel suspects more quickly.
Offensives would also be staged in other southern provinces plagued by extremist groups.
Before his return from Moscow overnight Mr Duterte is understood to have met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and told home he was counting on Russia to supply weapons for the Philippines fight against 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 state news agency Tass.
Speaking to reporters on the trip home from Moscow Mr Duterte said he would be prepared to extend the martial law declaration beyond the constitutionally-allowed 60 days if necessary.
“If it would take a year to do it then we’ll do it. If it’s over in a month I’d be happy,” he said in Facebook Live video from the plane.
“Martial law is martial law. It will not be any different from what the President, Marcos did. I’d be harsh.”
“I was asked how I would deal with terrorism. I said I’d be harsh. I told everyone, ‘do not force my hand into it.”
The latest attack comes just days after Australia announced it would co-host a counter terrorism summit to address the growing threat of Islamic State in south east Asia.
Australian security officials have become alarmed at the deteriorating security situation in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, where a large Muslim population has ready access to weapons and the advantage of porous borders.
While Indonesia has supplied the most radicals to the Islamic State cause, The Philippines has long been a serious concern for ASEAN and Western governments.
The lawless southern districts of Mindanao have become both nursery and training ground for radical Islamic groups, including those who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Security analysts fear the southern Philippines could become an Islamic State stronghold Islamic State and potentially even a regional self-proclaimed caliphate.