President Rodrigo Duterte late yesterday declared martial law over the southern Philippines and cut short his visit to Russia, after about a hundred Muslim militants laid siege to a major city in the southern island group of Mindanao.
In a news briefing in Moscow, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Mindanao would be under martial rule for at least 60 days.
The decision came after about a hundred fighters from the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), mounted attacks across Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of about 200,000, starting early in the afternoon.
Prior to the attacks, security forces raided an apartment at the city's Basak district to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group and designated by ISIS as its top man in South-east Asia. Hapilon has a bounty of up to US$5 million (S$6.9 million ) from the US State Department for his arrest.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was also in Moscow, disclosed that the militants briefly occupied the city hall, a hospital, a jail and a university. They later torched the city hall, a Catholic church and two schools.
As of press time, they were still in control of Marawi's main road, and have positioned snipers to hold back security forces sent to deal with them.
Mr Lorenzana said a policeman and two soldiers were killed in clashes with the militants. Photos posted on social media by Marawi residents showed gunmen walking through the streets of Basak, a suburb of about 1,700 people.
A woman who asked not to be named told Agence France-Presse by text that she saw about 10 armed men take up positions at the gate of a government hospital. Police clashed with the gunmen near the hospital, leaving one officer seriously wounded and one of the extremists dead, she added.
Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano said the situation in Marawi has forced Mr Duterte to cut short his official visit to Russia.
He said Mr Duterte's meetings with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev today and President Vladimir Putin tomorrow had to be scrapped.
"The President feels he is needed in Manila as soon as possible... The physical presence of the President is needed in the Philippines," said Mr Cayetano.
He added: "The President does not take lightly the declaration of martial law of any part of the Philippines... The declaration of martial law would dissuade some from going to Mindanao at this point in time, but the priority are the lives, properties of the people in Mindanao. We cannot sacrifice those for any economic reason."
The Philippines is still under a "state of lawlessness", following a bomb attack in the southern city of Davao, Mr Duterte's home city, last year that left at least 15 dead.
Government troops have been intensifying offensives on the island strongholds of Abu Sayyaf, and last month killed about 36 Maute group fighters when aircraft bombed their mountain lair in Lanao del Sur province.
The Abu Sayyaf, based on the most southern islands of Mindanao, has kidnapped hundreds of Filipinos and foreigners since the early 1990s to extract ransom. The militants beheaded an elderly German early this year and two Canadians last year after ransom demands were not met.
It has also been blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay that claimed more than 100 lives.
Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite Filipino militant groups that have professed allegiance to ISIS. These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi, hundreds of kilometres to the north of the Abu Sayyaf strongholds. The Maute group has engaged in repeated deadly battles with the military over the past year in rural areas around Marawi.