ILIGAN, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his troops to crush militants who are fighting street battles with government forces in the south, warning Friday that the country is at a grave risk of “contamination” by the Islamic State group.
The city of Marawi, home to some 200,000 people, has been under siege by IS-linked militants since a government raid Tuesday night on a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists.
The raid went awry and gunmen swept through the streets, fending off government forces and taking over large parts of the city. Duterte imposed martial law on the southern third of the nation earlier this week as the battles continued.
At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials say. It was not immediately clear whether civilians were among the dead. The violence has forced thousands of people to flee and raised fears of growing extremism.
Duterte told soldiers in Iligan, a city near Marawi, that he had long feared that “contamination by ISIS” loomed in the country’s future, using the acronym for the Islamic State group. “You can say that ISIS is here already,” he said.
He gave his troops a free hand to wrest control of Marawi.
“You can arrest any person, search any house without warrant,” said Duterte, who has allowed extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.
Still, he also offered dialogue to militants who are not on the streets fighting.
“We can still talk about it,” Duterte said. “But those who are out-and-out terrorists, and you cannot be convinced to stop fighting, so be it. Let us fight.”
Hapilon is still hiding out in the city under the protection of gunmen who are desperately trying to find a way to “extricate” him, the country’s military chief said.
“Right now, he is still inside (the city),” Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press. “We cannot just pinpoint the particular spot.”
He said Hapilon suffered a stroke after a government airstrike wounded him in January.
Ano predicted that the military operation will take about a week as soldiers go house to house to clear the city of militants.
“We will make this their cemetery,” he said. “We have to finish this.”
In a sign that the long-standing problem of militancy in the south could be expanding, Solicitor General Jose Calida said foreigners were fighting alongside the gunmen in Marawi, including Indonesians and Malaysians.
Ano also said foreign fighters were believed to be inside, but he was more cautious. “We suspect that but we’re still validating,” he said.
With much of Marawi a no-go zone, confusion reigned. One local police chief told the AP on Friday that he was fine — two days after Duterte announced he had been beheaded by militants.
Police Chief Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his predecessor in Malabang, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting on Tuesday, although he was not beheaded. Enriquez has been in the job for about two months.
Witnesses say gunmen were flying black flags of the Islamic State group. Authorities were working to determine the condition of a Catholic priest and worshippers who were taken hostage by gunmen earlier this week.
Hapilon, an Islamic preacher, is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance of at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week’s battles.
All of the groups are inspired by the Islamic State group, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.
Washington has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Hapilon’s capture.
The southern Philippines has been troubled by decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation. But recent attacks and this week’s siege suggest the threat of extremist ideology may be growing.
In Manila, hundreds of protesters marched Friday to the presidential palace to oppose Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the southern Mindanao region.
“We believe that it is not an answer to the problem of armed conflict in Mindanao. It will just exacerbate the situation,” said Renato Reyes of the New Patriotic Alliance group.
Duterte has warned that he might expand martial law nationwide, an unnerving prospect for many in the Philippines who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and used it to maintain his grip on power for more than a decade.