Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte declared on Saturday a “state of lawlessness” in the country after an explosion in a market killed 14 people in his home city while he was on a regular weekend visit there.
Duterte, the crime-busting mayor of Davao City for more than two decades, said the blast late on Friday outside a high-end hotel intensified what was an “extraordinary time” in the Philippines, and security forces would redouble efforts to tackle crime, drugs and insurgency.
“I must declare a state of lawless violence in this country, it’s not martial law,” Duterte told a phalanx of reporters on a Davao street at daybreak after visiting the blast site.
“It’s not martial law until it’s a threat against the people and against the nation … I have this duty to protect this country.”
Duterte was at a meeting some 12 km (7.5 miles) away from downtown Davao when the explosion occurred.
It came as the uncompromising president wages war with just about anyone from drugs kingpins and street dealers to Islamist rebels and corrupt bureaucrats, scoring big points in opinion polls, but at a risk of making powerful enemies.
There was no claim of responsibility though suspicion centered on an Islamic State-linked militant group.
Police said 67 people were wounded in addition to the 14 dead.
Police have yet to disclose details of their initial investigation, but Davao Mayor Sarah Duterte – the president’s daughter – said in a television interview it was a bomb.
Police and military promised to implement the nationwide “state of lawlessness”, although there appeared to be confusion about what that actually entailed.
Duterte’s office said it was “rooted” in an article of the constitution that puts the president in charge of the armed forces. Several officials said the declaration meant troops would assist police in anti-crime and anti-terror operations.
Rumors have swirled of a plot to assassinate Duterte, 71, which he has shrugged off as part of his job. The talk has been fueled by his controversial crackdown on drugs that has killed more than 2,000 people since his June 30 inauguration, and has been condemned by activists and the United Nations.
Asked on Thursday about death threats, Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “He eats that for breakfast, it’s not something new.”
The explosion went off at about 10.30 p.m. at a market outside the Marco Polo hotel, a place Duterte visits often and used for meetings during a campaign for a May election that he won by a huge margin. He typically spends his weekends in Davao.
Asked if he thought drugs gangs were behind it, Duterte said: “It is also being considered … At least we know who made the threats.”
The White House offered condolences and assistance, which National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said President Barack Obama would convey when he meets Duterte in Laos next week.
Duterte canceled a trip to Brunei on Saturday in what would have been his first overseas visit as president. Officials said he would still attend next week’s Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits in Laos.
Though Davao itself is relatively safe, it is located on Mindanao, a large southern island province beset by poverty and decades of Muslim insurgency.
Abu Sayyaf rebels linked to Islamic State and notorious for multi-million dollar kidnappings operate in the jungles of Mindanao’s Jolo and Basilan islands.
They are being hit by stepped-up offensives after Duterte ordered the military to wipe the group out.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Abu Sayyaf would have good reason to retaliate and he had placed the military on high alert for possible attacks elsewhere.
“While nobody has owned up to this act, we can only assume that this was perpetrated by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf that has suffered heavy casualties,” he said.