Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday declared a “state of lawlessness” in the country after 14 people were killed in a bomb blast at a night market in his home city.
Duterte’s declaration came as the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group claimed responsibility for the late Friday attack that also injured 71 people, with the extremists warning of more attacks in the coming days.
The Philippine leader stressed that he had not declared martial law, but that the move would allow him to ask the military to conduct operations according to his instructions.
“These are extraordinary times,” he told reporters during a visit before dawn at the site of the bomb attack in the southern city of Davao, where he used to be the mayor. “I can order soldiers to search premises.”
Placing the country under a state of lawlessness empowers the president to call on the military to help the police in anti-crime operations.
The president's office later pointed out that the declaration has "limitations" as the president can only order the armed forces to quell violence.
Martial law can only be declared in certain situations, his office continued: “Only if there is an invasion or a rebellion, and when public safety is at risk, can he [the president] suspend the writ of habeas corpus or declare martial law.”
The office called on Philippine citizens to be vigilant against “those who wish to create chaos.”
Alan Aguilar, an eyewitness who was eating dinner at the night market, described people taking cover from the deafening explosion. Following the blast he heard cries of help and saw smoke billowing from the area of the attack.
“It was frightening,” he said. “There were some people who were not injured but who were walking around aimlessly, as if they were disoriented and didn’t know where to go.”
Security forces in Metropolitan Manila have been placed on highest alert amid concerns of more attacks. Police forces have been beefed up security in airports and other public places.
The attack led to the cancellation of Duterte's two-day visit to Brunei starting on Sunday, his first foreign trip since he became Philippine leader on June 30.
However Duterte is still set to attend a summit of the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations in Vientiane in Laos from September 6 to 8, as well visit Indonesia on September 8 and 9, according to presidential communications secretary Martin Andanar.
Police chief Director General Ronald de la Rosa remained doubtful about the Abu Sayyaf’s claim that it was responsible for the attack, adding the attack could have been perpetrated by narco-terrorists.
Under Duterte's leadership, the government has been waging a brutal war against drugs, resulting in the killings of over 1,000 suspected drug pushers in police operations.
“Maybe these narco-terrorists are thinking that because of the explosion we will ease up on our anti-drugs campaign,” he told reporters at the police headquarters in Manila. “But there will be no let-up in our anti-drugs campaign.”
Chief Superintendent Manuel Gaerlan, a regional police chief in charge of investigating the attack, said they are looking into the possible participation of “disgruntled vendors” in the bombing.
Gaerlan said the police are reviewing CCTV footage from several locations around the explosion site.