MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte returned to Manila Wednesday after cutting short his official trip to Russia, rushing home after declaring martial law in the entire Mindanao following clashes between government troops and the terrorist Maute Group in Marawi City.
"I decided to cut short my visit to the Russian federation due to the recent developments in Mindanao," said Duterte in his arrival speech in Manila.
Clashes in Marawi City erupted Tuesday as government troops were about to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader who has been named the Philippine head of the Islamic State. The US government is offering a $5-million bounty for his capture.
The clashes resulted in the burning of several buildings in the city. A parish priest and several parishioners were also held hostage.
The siege prompted Duterte to declare martial law in the whole of Mindanao and cut short his 5-day visit to Russia.
In his remarks, Duterte spoke of his shortened trip to Russia and the need to boost ties with other countries amid emerging security threats.
"Shortly before going back to the Philippines, I met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow after official plans were changed to facilitate our meeting. I expressed appreciation for the warm welcome, hospitality, extended to me and my delegation after their flexibility and understanding to reschedule our meeting," Duterte said, calling Russia "a true friend."
"The emergence of new forms of terrorism and existence of non-traditional security threats reinforce the need to broaden and widen our network of allies to strengthen our security cooperation," said Duterte.
Left behind in Russia was Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, who Duterte said would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to "discuss how to strengthen our bilateral relations and sign some agreements that have been already concluded."
The President is mandated by law to submit to Congress his justification for declaring martial law within 48 hours of his declaration. The legislature will then conduct a review and decide by a majority vote whether to uphold or revoke the declaration.
Photos posted on social media by residents showed Maute group gunmen walking through the streets of Marawi and placing black flags that looked similar to those used by IS.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Tuesday evening that many gunmen were hiding in buildings as snipers, making it difficult for security forces to combat them.
There were no reports of fighting on Wednesday morning, although it was unclear if the militants were still in the city or had escaped into nearby mountains and forests that they have long used as hideouts.
Authorities did not give any updates on the whereabouts of Hapilon.
The Abu Sayyaf, based on the most southern islands of Mindanao, has kidnapped hundreds of Filipinos and foreigners since the early 1990s to extract ransoms. The United States lists it as a terrorist organisation.
Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite Filipino militant groups that have professed allegiance to IS.
These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi.
The Maute group has engaged in repeated deadly battles with the military over the past year. – with AFP