Foreign fighters among militants in Philippines

According to media reports, at least 31 from the terrorist group have been killed so far, and some of them were Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Indonesians, Armed Forces spokesperson Restituto Padilla said, ABS-CBN News reports.

The human-rights watchdog Karapatan said the clashes started when the Armed Forces launched an operation created to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), in Marawi.

They have also taken a priest and his parishioners hostage and set fire to buildings. The violence sent thousands of people fleeing and raised fears of extremists gaining traction in the country.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Thursday defended President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao to neutralize militants linked to attacks carried out by the Maute terror group in Marawi City.

Mindanao is home to a sizable Muslim population, in contrast to the remainder of the country, which is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Who are the key players?

Army tanks packed with soldiers rolled into the southern Phili. Two American hostages eventually died, one of whom was beheaded. Washington has placed him on its list of most-wanted terrorists and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. He was wounded in a Philippine airstrike in January but got away.

Military leaders say the Maute's motivation for taking the city was to raise its profile and earn recognition from Isis. "Based on our intelligence, Isnilon Hapilon is still in the city", said Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for the First Infantry Regiment.

The HRW said Maute and the Islamist armed group Abu Sayyaf threaten the security of people in parts of Mindanao. The group, founded by the brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, started as a small band of petty criminals.

The group has been blamed for a bombing that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, Duterte's hometown, last September and a number of attacks on government forces in Lanao, although it has faced setbacks from a series of military offensives.

The authorities also said they foiled a plot in November in which the group tried to bomb the US Embassy in Manila.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on Tuesday because of these threats.

The populist president has taken an extreme hard line on crime and disorder, most notably with his contentious war on drugs, which has left thousands across the country dead and has drawn condemnation from rights groups and many Western governments.

Ano predicted that the military operation will take about a week as soldiers go house to house to clear the city of militants. Militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower government forces.

Duterte still managed to arrange an earlier-than-scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, the second formal meeting between the two leaders in the past six months. Civilians can be held in detention merely on suspicion of committing a crime and can be subjected to trial by military tribunal.

Duterte warned he may expand martial law nationwide, an unnerving development for many in the Philippines who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The 1987 Philippine Constitution, which was drafted after Marcos' overthrow during a "people power" revolution in 1986, places restrictions on the proclamation of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, as well as on their implementation.

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