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June 28, 2017

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Duterte declares martial rule in besieged south Philippines

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the country's south under martial rule for 60 days and cut short a visit to Moscow on Tuesday after Muslim extremists allied with the Islamic State group laid siege to a southern city.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told a news conference in Moscow that martial rule took effect Tuesday evening in the southern region of Mindanao "on the grounds of existence of rebellion."

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said troops raided the hideout of a top terrorist suspect in southern Marawi city on Tuesday, sparking a gunbattle that prompted the militants to call for reinforcements from an allied group, the Maute. He said dozens of gunmen occupied city hall, a hospital and a jail and burned a Catholic church, a jail, a college and some houses in a bold attack that killed at least two soldiers and a police officer and wounded 12 others.

Several militants were killed in the fighting in Marawi city in Lanao del Sur province, about 830 kilometers (520 miles) south of Manila, but others continued to lay siege to the largely Muslim city of more than 200,000 people, officials said, adding that power was cut in the city in a chaotic scene.

"The whole of Marawi city is blacked out, there is no light, and there are Maute snipers all around," Lorenzana said in the news conference in Moscow, which was broadcast live in the Philippines.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said he informed his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, of Duterte's decision to fly home early to deal with the crisis. Cayetano said he would stay behind in Moscow, where a number of agreements are to be signed between the governments.

Duterte met late Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he is counting on Russia to supply weapons for the Philippines to fight terrorism.

"Of course, our country needs modern weapons, we had orders in the United States, but now the situation there is not very smooth and in order to fight the Islamic State, with their units and factions, we need modern weapons," he said, according to state news agency Tass.

Duterte's martial law declaration will help government forces carry out searches and arrests and detain rebel suspects more quickly, Lorenzana said. He said offensives would also be staged in other southern provinces plagued by extremist groups. Despite the moves, he said the government remains in control of the situation in Marawi city and other security trouble spots in the south.

Military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said the fighting broke out in Marawi when troops attacked a hideout for Muslim extremist leader Isnilon Hapilon.

Hapilon reportedly has been chosen to lead an Islamic State group branch in Southeast Asia and is on the U.S. Department of Justice list of most-wanted terrorists worldwide, with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. An Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults, he pledged allegiance to the IS group in 2014, according to security officials.

Ano said Hapilon, who is still recovering from wounds sustained in a military airstrike in January, and more than a dozen of his men summoned reinforcements from their allies in the Maute militant group. Ano said nearly 50 gunmen in all managed to enter the city.

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