Islamist militants kill 19 in south Philippines: army

Duterte is notorious for comments often deemed offensive and made the remark as a joke, reiterating that only he would be liable for any backlash over military rule on southern Mindanao island.

The army said 11 soldiers and 31 militants have been killed.

As air force planes and rocket-firing helicopters pounded militant positions on Saturday, fleeing residents waved white flags or hoisted them on their roofs to signify that they are not combatants. Hapilon got away and fighters loyal to him took over parts of the city, burning buildings and seizing about a dozen hostages, including a priest.

An enraged Duterte, who was in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, declared martial law shortly after the fighting erupted and cut short his trip to fly home and deal with the crisis.

Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Westmincom chief, said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines' Muslim soldiers are usually given breaks to observe Ramadan.

He gave his troops a free hand to wrest control of Marawi, saying: "You can arrest any person, search any house without warrant".

Two civilians were also confirmed killed inside a hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military has said it investigating reports that nine people were murdered at a checkpoint the militants had set up.

But Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, said it was too unsafe for rescue teams to enter parts of the city.

"We will continue to work with the Philippine authorities to identify any Singaporean who may be involved in terrorism-related activities in the Philippines", a MHA spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia.

Mr Adiong said local officials were seeking clearance from the military to send rescue teams to 25 districts where the trapped residents were located. "So they said, well, we have the framework in place through our agreements to cooperate", Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano said on Wednesday. He later apologized and said he did not intend to disrespect women or rape victims. "We have to finish this".

However, with the declaration of martial law and the continuous fighting to clear the city of Maute militants, that break has had to be deferres.

Hapilon, a leader of another Mindanao-based rebel group Abu Sayyaf, pledged allegiance to Islamic State past year and has formed an alliance with Maute.

Duterte said the militants were planning to establish a caliphate for ISIS across all of Mindanao, home to 20 million people, and that martial law was the only way to crush the rebellion.

With much of Marawi a no-go zone, confusion reigned. He also heads an alliance of at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which has a heavy presence in Marawi and has been instrumental in fighting off government forces in the current battles.

Although Hapilon and other groups in the southern Philippines have pledged allegiance to the IS, there is no clear sign of significant, material ties.

Hapilon is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list; the USA has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

  • Leroy Wright