Philippine church says priest, churchgoers taken hostage

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Philippine troops battled heavily armed militants allied with the Islamic State group on Tuesday in an effort to capture a top extremist suspect in a southern city where the gunmen burned houses to sow confusion during the fighting.

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern third of the nation and warned he will enforce it harshly. "I have to do it to preserve the republic".

The sound of gunfire had mostly subsided in Marawi City Wednesday morning, giving residents the opportunity that had been seeking to emerge from their homes and flee the fighting between government forces and gunmen of the Maute terror group.

But an archbishop said the gunmen have threatened to kill the hostages "if government forces unleashed against them are not recalled".

However, they also hoped that martial law would not degenerate into abuses of civilian rights, "the way that happened during martial law under Marcos", Valmores said.

Likewise, he also denied that the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are downplaying the situation in Marawi City. "The agreements will be signed", Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said.

Duterte is cutting short an official visit to Moscow because of the clashes, PNA reported.

Duterte said martial law would mean checkpoints, arrests and searches without warrant, and it would go on for as long as it took to restore order, but he would not tolerate abuses of power by police or soldiers. "Please do not believe propaganda from other groups", Padilla said.

"Hopefully, the military will be able to control the situation in Marawi city by tomorrow", he said.

Last November the government claimed it had killed 61 Maute fighters in five days of military air and ground assaults.

The violence erupted Tuesday after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who has pledged allegiance to IS. Ano said almost 50 gunmen in all managed to enter the bustling commercial city of more than 200,000 people.

Philippine Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who is in Moscow with Duterte, told a news conference that militants even set fire to some of those buildings - including the city's jail, a local Catholic church and Dansalan college.

"Containing these terrorists could have been easier if the area is not a built-up community, however, as our troops have inch closer to the enemy, they also need to make sure that the civilians are safe", Galvez said.

A group inspired by the so-called Islamic State took hostage of a priest, church staff and churchgoers after burning the cathedral in Marawi City, Bishop Edwin dela Peña said Wednesday.

The government has blamed the Maute for a bombing in September 2016 at a street market in Duterte's hometown of Davao City, which killed 14 people and wounded dozens.

Previous military offensives against the Maute, based in Lanao del Sur province, have lasted several days.