DAVAO, Philippines – Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte declared on Saturday a nationwide “state of lawlessness” after a bombing police believe was orchestrated by Muslim militants killed 14 people in his home city during his weekend visit there.
Duterte, the crime-busting mayor of Davao for more than two decades, said the blast late on Friday at a market outside a high-end hotel had intensified what was already an “extraordinary time” in the Philippines.
“I must declare a state of lawless violence in this country, it’s not martial law,” Duterte told a phalanx of reporters on a Davao street at daybreak after visiting the blast site.
“I have this duty to protect this country.”
Police and the military promised to implement the nationwide “state of lawlessness”, although there appeared to be confusion about what that actually entailed.
Duterte‘s office said the phrase was “rooted” in an article of the constitution that puts the president in charge of the armed forces. Officials said the declaration meant troops would assist police in anti-crime and anti-terror operations.
Suspicion among top officials in Duterte‘s administration has centred on Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic State-linked group against which the military has stepped up operations after a series of piracy incidents and high-profile murders of Western hostages captured international attention.
Duterte had been at a meeting some 12 km away from downtown Davao when the explosion occurred.
It came as the uncompromising president wages war with just about anyone from drugs kingpins and street dealers to Islamist rebels and corrupt bureaucrats, scoring big points in opinion polls but at a risk of making powerful enemies.
National police chief, Director General Ronald Dela Rosa, said an improvised explosive device (IED) had been used and that mortar fragments had been detected.
“Someone has claimed (responsibility) already but we are validating if that is authentic,” Dela Rosa said, declining to say who that was.
“As of now, that will be our (inquiry) line: terrorism. There are no other motives.”
Threats ‘nothing new’
Rumours have swirled of a plot to assassinate Duterte, 71, which he has shrugged off as part of his job. The talk has been fuelled by his controversial crackdown on drugs that has killed more than 2,000 people since his June 30 inauguration and has been condemned by activists and the United Nations.
Asked on Thursday about death threats, Duterte‘s spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “He eats that for breakfast, it’s not something new.”
The explosion went off at about 10.30 p.m. outside the Marco Polo hotel, a place Duterte visits often and used for meetings during a campaign for a May election that he won by a huge margin. He typically spends his weekends in Davao.
Asked earlier if the drugs gangs were behind it, Duterte had declined to rule that out.
Though Davao itself has been relatively safe during Duterte‘s time as mayor, it is located on Mindanao, a large southern island province beset by joblessness, insurgency and kidnappings.
The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for their multi-million dollar hostage business in the jungles of Mindanao’s Jolo and Basilan islands, have been on the receiving end of sustained military operations of late.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Abu Sayyaf, which means “bearer of the sword”, would have good reason to retaliate.
“We can only assume that this was perpetrated by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf that has suffered heavy casualties,” he said.
The White House offered condolences and assistance to the Philippines, a key Asian ally.
Duterte cancelled his trip to Brunei on Saturday in what would have been his first overseas venture as president.
His aides said he would still attend next week’s Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits in Laos, during which he is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama.