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Priest is among hostages of extremists in the Philippines

VATICAN CITY – Muslim extremists have taken a Catholic priest and more than a dozen churchgoers hostage in an attack on a southern Philippine city, during which they burned buildings, ambushing soldiers and hoisting flags of the Islamic State (IS) group, officials said on 24 May 2017.

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern third of the nation and warned he would enforce it harshly.

The violence erupted on the night of May 23 after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. The militants called for reinforcements from Maute, a group allied to IS, and some 50 gunmen managed to enter the city of Marawi.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the militants forced their way into a cathedral in Marawi and seized a priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers.   The priest, Father Chito, and the others had no role in the conflict, Archbishop Villegas said.

“He was not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none,” the archbishop said of the priest.  “His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilized conflict.”   The Philippine bishops’ president said the abductors have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled.

UCANEWS reported that Father Teresito ‘Chito’Suganob, vicar-general of the Prelature ‎of ‎Marawi, and several staff of the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians, which was set on fire, were taken hostage.‎  The ‎United Church of Christ in the Philippines also reported that the main building, science ‎laboratories, ‎and library of Dansalan College, a Protestant school, were also set on fire.‎

Bishop Edwin de la Peña of Marawi Prelature said he received a call from a militant, who introduced himself as “a member of the ISIS,” and demanded for a “unilateral ceasefire”. The bishop said, “They want a ceasefire and for the military to give them access out of Marawi.  Otherwise, they will kill the hostages.”  The bishop said he was able to talk with Fr  Chito to make sure that “their demands are clear with me”.

Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise on commando assaults, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group and was wounded by a military airstrike in January.

Duterte who along with Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana were on an official trip to Moscow on Tuesday cut short his visit to head back to the Philippines.  Duterte declared martial rule for 60 days in the entire Mindanao region, the restive southern third of the Philippine archipelago.

He had vowed to be “harsh,” but human rights groups have expressed fears that martial law powers could further embolden Duterte, whom they have accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of drug suspects in a crackdown on illegal drugs.

Martial law allows Duterte to harness the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly.     While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, Duterte has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups which have tried to align with the Islamic State group. – Vatican Radio

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