Militants affiliated with the terror group ISIS took a Catholic priest captive along with other parishioners in southern Philippines on Tuesday night.
The Maute group, also known as Dawlah Islamiya, set on fire the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians in Marawi, capital city of Lanao del Sur province in Mindanao, according to Bishop Edwin dela Peña, local media outlet GMA news reported.
The militants took Father Teresito Suganob, together with the church's secretary, a professor, two working students and a number of parishioners and brought them to an undisclosed location.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) urged the government to make the safety of the hostages top priority.
"As the government forces ensure that the law is upheld, we beg of them to make the safety of the hostages a primordial consideration," CBCP president Socrates Villegas said in a statement. "They threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled. We beg every Filipino to pray fervently for Fr. Chito and for other hostages."
Several hours before the abduction, a clash broke out between the militants and the military. It started when the military launched a "surgical operation" on Tuesday afternoon to take out Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Jihadist group Abu Sayyaf, who was being protected by the Maute group members in an apartment.
"We checked it and it turned out that this is the core group of Maute. We launched a surgical operation to neutralize the group who is planning terrorism in Marawi City," Lt. Col. Joar Herrera, spokesperson for the Army's 1st Infantry Division, said, according to another report from GMA News.
The Maute group took over a government hospital, wounding five soldiers during the firefight. The clash continued for hours.
The provincial vice governor advised residents to lock their gates and remain indoors, and to "drop on the ground if they hear gunshots."
Residents said the militants called to the people from the streets and urged them to join ISIS.
"Some of them were knocking at our doors, some tried to get in but we locked our gates and doors," Amir Sumalih, a resident who lived near the hospital that the Maute seized, said. "They don't shoot civilians, they were yelling using a megaphone urging us to join ISIS and jihad."
By evening, reports from Marawi residents erupted on social media as they posted photos and videos of the ongoing battle between the military and the members of the Maute group. Some residents said the militants were waving the black flag of ISIS. Others said the militants set some buildings on fire, according to local media outlet Rappler.
Marawi City Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra confirmed that the Dansalan College and the city jail were on fire. A resident said the cathedral was also on fire, the Inquirer reported.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao in southern Philippines on Tuesday evening. He was on an official trip to Russia when the violence broke out.
Martial law will be in effect over Mindanao for 60 days, according to presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, the Inquirer reported.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) issued a statement saying the government is in full control of the situation and denied that the militants took over the government hospital. They also said the Maute group is just a local terrorist group and not affiliated with ISIS.
The statement contradicts reports from the military on the ground and also from the city residents.
"We are not okay here," a resident posted on Facebook. "There are buildings on fire in the town and we are not hearing any fire truck sirens or what. And now lights are out and we are hearing gunshots again. #PrayforMarawi."
The AFP's statement also contradicts what Duterte mentioned in a speech in November that "ISIS ... has connected with the group in the Philippines called the Maute. There is a waging war now in Lanao."
Duterte said he would be cutting short his trip to Russia to "deal with the problem."
"I am sad but what makes me happy is that I was able to have a last-minute meeting with President Vladimir Putin and I was able to communicate all the things that I wanted to tell him," he said.