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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes the honor guards upon arrival from Russia at the Ninoy Aquino International airport in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

(reuters_tickers)

By Romeo Ranoco

PANTAR, Philippines (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians fled fighting in the Philippines on Wednesday as troops sought to contain Islamic State-linked militants who took over large parts of a city, set building ablaze and captured a Catholic priest and other Christians.

President Rodrigo Duterte said he had no choice but to declare martial law on his native island of Mindanao following a failed raid by soldiers on Tuesday on a hideout of the Maute militant group, which triggered clashes and chaos across the largely Muslim city of Marawi.

Duterte said Islamic State could not be allowed to gain a foothold in the Christian-majority Philippines and he would do whatever it took to rebuff extremists from the Maute group and the allied Abu Sayyaf, even if it meant many would die.

"Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all. Do not force my hands into it," said Duterte, who cut short his visit to Russia to return to Manila.

"If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us you will die. If there's an open defiance you will die and if it means many people dying, so be it. That's how it is."

Soldiers and rebels set up checkpoints and roadblocks on routes in and out of Marawi as a stream of men, women and children fled. Long queues of pickup trucks and jeeps crammed full of people and loaded with belongings snaked on roads leading into nearby towns.

Battles abated on Wednesday as the military tried to isolate Maute fighters while awaiting reinforcements to the city of 200,000 people, which an official described as a ghost town. Maute snipers and booby traps were hampering operations, which could last three more days, the military said.

Thirteen militants and seven members of the security forces have so far been killed and 33 troops wounded in the fighting, according to the military.

Duterte said martial law would mean checkpoints, arrests and searches without warrant, and it would go on for as long as it took to restore order, but he would not tolerate abuses of power by police or soldiers.

He said he would consider some legal measures in the central Visayas region next to Mindanao to facilitate arrests, and might even declare martial law nationwide if he felt extremists had proliferated. He was also furious that the Maute group had hoisted the flag of Islamic State.

EXTREMISTS HAVE ARRIVED

"I made a projection, not a prediction, that one of these days the hardest things to deal with would be the arrival of ISIS in our country," Duterte said, referring to Islamic State.

"The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere."

The military has not explained how the raid on an apartment hideout went so badly wrong and resulted in Maute gunmen going on the rampage and taking over roads, bridges, buildings and a hospital.

Duterte said he had heard reports that a police chief in Marawi may have been beheaded by the Maute.

The armed forces said it was on top of the situation but residents who fled told a different story.

"The city is still under the control of the armed group. They are all over the main roads and two bridges leading to Marawi," student Rabani Mautum told Reuters in Pantar town, about 16 km (10 miles) from Marawi.

Duterte said martial law in Mindanao, which would apply for 60 days initially, would be like that of the 1970s rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, remembered by many Filipinos as one of the darkest chapters of recent history. He said Marcos' use of martial law was "very good".

The Catholic church said rebels had taken hostage Father Chito Suganob, a priest at Marawi's Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians, and several churchgoers.

"They have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled," said Father Socrates Villegas, president of Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

"We beg every Filipino to pray fervently."

Tuesday's raid was aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group notorious for piracy, banditry and for kidnapping and beheading Westerners.

The Maute and Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to Islamic State and have proved fierce opponents for the military.

Critics chided Duterte for what they saw as an overreaction in declaring martial law on an island the size of South Korea and the second biggest in the Philippines, after an incident in one city.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, a group of human rights attorneys, called it "a sledgehammer, knee-jerk reaction" that would "open the flood gates for unbridled human rights violations".

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema, Enrico dela Cruz, Manuel Mogato in Manila; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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