Muslim extremist group affiliated to ISIS abducted a Catholic priest and more than a dozen churchgoers while laying siege to a southern Philippine city overnight, burning buildings, ambushing soldiers and hoisting flags of the Islamic State group, officials said, on Wednesday.
President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern third of the nation and warned he would enforce it harshly.
The violence erupted Tuesday night after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture.
The militants called for reinforcements from an allied group, the Maute, and some 50 gunmen managed to enter the city of Marawi.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the militants forced their way into a cathedral in Marawi and seized a priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers.
The priest, Father Chito, and the others had no role in the conflict, Villegas said.
“He was not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none,” Villegas said of Chito. “His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilized conflict.”
Villegas says the gunmen are demanding the government recall its forces.
Duterte declared martial rule for 60 days in the entire Mindanao region, the restive southern third of the Philippine archipelago. He had vowed to be “harsh.”
“I warned everybody not to force my hand into it,” Duterte said on a plane en route to the Philippines on Wednesday. “I have to do it to preserve the republic.”
Martial law allows Duterte to harness the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly.
He has repeatedly threatened to place the south, the scene of decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings, under martial law.