By Associated Press - Wednesday, December 4, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The Philippine defense chief said Wednesday he recommended that President Rodrigo Duterte not extend martial law in the country’s south, where it was imposed in 2017 to help troops quell a bloody siege by Islamic State group-aligned jihadists in Marawi city.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he told the president on Wednesday that Muslim militants have been weakened considerably and are no longer able to carry out an attack like the Marawi siege. Duterte has extended the martial rule three times and it is due to expire at year’s end.

There was no immediate reaction from the president.

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines believes that the Maute group and other threat groups can no longer launch a Marawi-type attack as their forces and capabilities have significantly dwindled,” Lorenzana said, referring to one of the IS-linked groups blamed for the attack in the Islamic city.

Troops have also made significant progress in efforts to defeat the decades-old communist insurgency, Lorenzana said.

Duterte placed the entire southern Mindanao region under martial law after hundreds of local militants, backed by foreign fighters, occupied buildings, a commercial district and communities in Marawi starting May 23, 2017, in the worst security crisis he has faced.

The attack reinforced fears in Southeast Asia that the Islamic State group was gaining a foothold in the region despite its battle setbacks in Iraq and Syria.

Backed by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft, troops quelled the siege after five months of intense airstrikes and ground offensives. The government successfully received congressional approvals to extend martial law in the south, saying surviving militants continued to recruit new fighters and plot bombings and other attacks.

Opposition politicians have argued that extending martial law is unconstitutional because it is an “extreme measure” that can only be imposed when an actual rebellion against the government exists. They feared the move could be a prelude for Duterte to declare martial law throughout the Philippines.

Foreign governments have also expressed concern but Lorenzana said the martial law imposed in Mindanao was “so mild” compared to the state of martial rule declared by authoritarian leader Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s. The Marcos-era martial law was characterized by widespread human rights violations and alleged plunder of state coffers.

Lorenzana said businesspeople were reluctant to invest in the south because of martial law.

Suicide bombings have rocked the southern province of Sulu this year, including the first one staged by a Filipino militant, but Lorenzana expressed confidence that government forces “can maintain the peace and order there and improve it further, make it more peaceful, without martial law.”

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