Philippine militants tied to the Daesh terrorist group have reportedly seized a Catholic church and taken a priest and several worshipers hostage in the city of Marawi.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas said on Wednesday that a priest and more than a dozen churchgoers and staff had been taken hostage by gunmen at a cathedral in Marawi in the southern province of Lanao del Sur on the island of Mindanao.
The development came a day after the militants with the Daesh-linked Maute group ran over the majority-Muslim city. During that offensive, the militants killed two soldiers and a police officer and wounded 12 others after taking over buildings and setting fire to a school, a church, and a jail.
The militant attack led Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to cut short his official visit to Russia to deal with the emerging crisis in the restive region of nearly 22 million people, declaring a 60-day martial law and vowing to deal harshly with the armed militants.
He further raised the possibility that the military rule in the area would last a year.
“If it would take a year to do it, then we’ll do it. If it’s over with a month, then I’d be happy. To my countrymen, do not be too scared. I’m going home. I will deal with the problem once I arrive,” Duterte said in Moscow before he returned.
Clashes erupted in Marawi as troops sought to contain dozens of militants, who escaped a botched raid targeting a top terrorist suspect on Tuesday on an apartment and took over streets, bridges, and buildings while seeking to block army reinforcements.
The operation was aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for piracy, banditry, and kidnapping and beheading Westerners.
The military raid prompted the militants to call for reinforcements from an allied group, the Maute. Nearly 50 gunmen then managed to gain entry into the city.
Both the Maute and Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to the Daesh terror group and have become a major challenge for the Philippine military.
While authorities have insisted that the situation is under control, local residents who fled the city offered a different story, saying Marawi was still in control of the militants.
Student Rabani Mautum, in nearby Pantar Town, where some residents were leaving in overloaded trucks, said, “The city is still under the control of the armed group. They are all over the main roads and two bridges leading to Marawi.”
“I was in school when we heard gunfire... When we came out there were blood stains in the building but we did not see dead or wounded,” he added.
Meanwhile, Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said on Wednesday that troops had sealed off major entry and exit points to prevent Hapilon, the Aby Sayyaf leader, from escaping the area.