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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Philippines votes to extend martial law in south until end of 2017

The vote in congress came as Philippine troops continued their two-month long fight to wrest back the southern city of Marawi from ISIL-inspired militants

Philippine marines load ammunition onto an armoured personnel carrier at the frontline in Marawi on July 22, 2017. Ted Aljibe / AFP
Philippine marines load ammunition onto an armoured personnel carrier at the frontline in Marawi on July 22, 2017. Ted Aljibe / AFP

The Philippine congress on Saturday voted to extend president Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law in the south until the end of the year to defeat Islamist militants.

In a special joint session of the House and the Senate, legislators overwhelmingly backed Mr Duterte's bid for martial law to remain in force in the Mindanao region until December 31.

The vote came as troops continued their two-month long fight to wrest back the southern city of Marawi from ISIL-inspired militants.

Mr Duterte first declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23 shortly after the gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, triggering weeks of bloody fighting.

The law allows the military to establish control with measures such as curfews, checkpoints and gun controls in a country where civilians are authorised to keep licensed firearms in their homes.

Saturday's vote was largely a foregone conclusion as Mr Duterte enjoy majorities in both houses of congress.

But opposition lawmakers dragged out the debate, questioning why martial law was needed for the whole of Mindanao when the fighting was limited to only one city.

"I fear that the plan to extend the martial law in Mindanao will pave the way for a Philippines-wide martial law," said senator Risa Hontiveros ahead of the vote.

A slide presentation accompanying Mr Duterte's request compared the Marawi crisis to the ISIL takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Marawi itself could now become a magnet for foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, it said.

Most of the leaders of the militants in Marawi remain at large, the presentation added, while about 90 of the gunmen have slipped past security cordons and could now link up with other armed groups in the region to mount similar wide-scale attacks.

At the congressional hearing, defence and security officials justified the extended martial law, saying that aside from Marawi, Islamist militants were planning attacks in other parts of Mindanao.

They said almost a thousand pro-ISIL militants, holding 23 hostages, were still active elsewhere in the south.

The military said only about 60 gunmen were left in a 49-hectare area of Marawi, but Mr Duterte said he needed martial law powers to rebuild the city and ensure the war did not spread elsewhere.

"I cannot afford to be complacent," Mr Duterte said on Friday, adding that the military would be conducting further "mopping up operations" even after they recapture Marawi.

"If there is a spillage it will not be as bad if you have this stopgap," he said.

Mr Duterte imposed 60-day martial rule — the maximum period allowed by the constitution — over the Mindanao region on May 23 within hours of the gunmen beginning their rampage.

On Monday he asked congress to extend it until the end of the year, along with the continued suspension of a constitutional safeguard against warrantless arrests.

The subject of martial law remains sensitive in the Philippines, decades after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos put the country under military rule for part of his 20-year term.

Thousands of critics, political opponents and communist guerrillas were killed, detained or arrested during the period, according to historians.

About a dozen protesters in the gallery interrupted Saturday's hearing, chanting "never again, never again to martial law" before being escorted out.

Mr Duterte had already beaten back a supreme court petition to declare martial law in Mindanao illegal.

"Once he feels that there is not enough opposition to a nationwide martial law declaration, he will go for it," senator Antonio Trillanes said on Tuesday.

This is part of a bid to stay in office beyond his mandated six years, he warned.

Mr Duterte, 72, insists he has no plan to stay in office beyond his term.