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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Congress on Wednesday approved a request by the president to extend martial law in the country's volatile south by a year due to continuing threats by Islamic State group-linked militants and communist insurgents.
An overwhelming majority in the Senate and House of Representatives voted to extend martial rule, which expires at the end of the month, by another year in southern Mindanao region, scene of decades-long Muslim and communist rebellions in the largely Roman Catholic nation.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed the southern region under martial law after hundreds of Islamic State group-linked militants attacked the Islamic city of Marawi on May 23, 2017, in the worst security crisis he has faced. Troops quelled the siege after five months but officials say surviving militants continue to recruit new fighters and plot bombings and other attacks.
"Now more than ever, we cannot afford to show our enemies a moment of weakness in our resolve to defeat them," Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told the joint session of Congress.
He warned that if Muslim militants and communist insurgents are allowed to regroup, "this government will not be able to function fully, basic services to the people will continuously be hindered, and the safety of the general public will remain to be under constant threat."
Muslim militants, backed by foreign extremists, are fighting to turn the Philippines into a province of a so-called Muslim caliphate, while other armed groups aim to establish a separate Muslim homeland, Medialdea said.
Opponents argue 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 say the move could be a prelude for Duterte to declare martial law throughout the Philippines.
Opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman said the government's repeated requests for extensions of martial law show the military and police have failed to achieve their objectives under martial rule.
"I think this undue prolongation of martial law in Mindanao would amount to perpetuity," Lagman said.
Other opposition lawmakers argued that government forces could fight insurgents in remote rural areas and allow economic growth without martial law.
At least 143 suspected militants have been arrested and charged with rebellion since martial rule was imposed across the south, where a number of extremist groups, including the brutal Abu Sayyaf group which still has more than 400 fighters, continue to pose threats, military officials said.
Left-wing lawmakers questioned a military claim that not one case of human rights violations has occurred under martial law in the south. Outside the House, activists staged a noisy protest, expressing fears that left-wing groups and human rights defenders will be targeted under martial law.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pledged that the military will protect "the democratic way of life of our people, with full respect for human rights, international humanitarian law and the primacy of the rule of law."
Filipinos remain hypersensitive to threats to democracy and civil liberties after they ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a 1986 "people power" revolt that became a harbinger of change in authoritarian regimes worldwide. Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972 in a period marked by massive human rights abuses.
Concerns over Duterte's martial law have been sparked in part by his perceived authoritarian bent and the killings of thousands of suspects in a crackdown on illegal drugs that he launched after taking office in 2016.
Associated Press journalist Alberto "Bullit" Marquez contributed to this report.