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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a military uniform, gestures as he delivers a speech during the 67th founding anniversary of the First Scout Ranger regiment in San Miguel town, Bulacan province, north of Manila, Philippines November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco


By Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed President Rodrigo Duterte's plan to extend martial law for all of next year on the southern island of Mindanao, a move the government says aims to thwart Islamist and communist rebels.

The extension, until Dec. 31 next year, would mark the longest period of martial law since the 1970s era of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, one of the darkest and most oppressive chapters of the country's recent history.

At a joint session of Congress, 240 out of 267 lawmakers agreed with Duterte on the need for tough measures to stop pro-Islamic State militants recruiting fighters and preparing for a new wave of attacks after occupying Marawi City for five months this year.

That conflict, the Philippines' biggest security crisis in decades, killed more than 1,100 people, mostly militants. It forced more than 200,000 residents to flee Marawi, whose centre was flattened by shelling and air strikes.

The government worries that mountainous, jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea that is home to the Muslim minority, could attract international extremists.

The move meant security forces could now better target "foreign terrorist groups and armed lawless groups, and the communist terrorists and their coddlers, supporters and financiers," said Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque.

"We ask the public to stand behind the administration and rally behind our defenders to quell the continuing rebellion," he said in a statement.

Duterte enjoys massive public support but his frequent threats to expand martial law are contentious in a country that suffered nine years of oppression under Marcos before his ouster in 1986.

Marcos was accused of inventing security threats to justify tightening his grip on power and crushing detractors. Duterte has frequently praised the leadership of Marcos.

Unrest was "ready to explode anew" in Mindanao, making martial law necessary, Duterte's executive secretary, Salvador Medialdea, told Congress, but several minority lawmakers said that fell short of a constitutional requirement for a rebellion or invasion to be underway.

Congressman Tom Villarin called the vote a "death blow to our democracy" which would lead to billions of dollars spent on security, rather than battling poverty.

"We have made martial law the new normal, absent of any proof of invasion or rebellion," he said. "Martial law now desensitizes the people to wrongly equate it with good governance and democracy."

Opponents queried why a communist insurgency omitted from Duterte's initial request was cited two days later as a reason to extend martial law, despite the government having called the movement a spent force.

A little-known operative active in Mindanao, Abu Turaifie, was "said to be" Islamic State's potential point man in Southeast Asia, Duterte added in the request.

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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