Duterte denies making deal to end Marawi crisis

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Pres. Rodrigo R. Duterte
File photo of Pres. Rodrigo R. Duterte -- MALACANANG PHOTO

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Thursday, July 6, dismissed claims by a prominent Muslim leader that endeavoring to negotiate with Islamic State (IS)-inspired Maute militants in Marawi City to end the bloody standoff.

Reuters reported on July 5 that Muslim leader Agakhan Sharief was approached by a “senior Duterte aide” to use his connections with Maute leaders to start back-channel talks after clashes erupted on May 23.

However, Mr. Sharief said the process was halted when Mr. Duterte in a May 31 speech declared he “will not talk to terrorists.”

In a media interview yesterday after visiting troops in the Mindanao province of Bukidnon, Mr. Duterte denied Mr. Sharief’s claims and described the cleric as a “pretender.”

“I’d never talk to terrorists — that’s one. I would never talk to criminals and to terrorists,” the President told reporters.

’Wag nila ako biruin na istorya-istorya lang tayo (Do not fool me and create stories). If there has to be peace, it would really be peace. ’Wag nyo ko laruin (Do not fool me),” he added.

But Mr. Duterte also said influential Muslim separatist groups might have already started a negotiation with the pro-IS bandits.

Clashes between government forces and the Maute militants broke out in Marawi in May — triggering what is arguably the biggest internal security crisis since the siege of Zamboanga City, also in Mindanao, in 2013.

Mr. Duterte, in his Proclamation 216, declared martial law and enforced warrantless arrests over the southern main island and its groups of islands.

The sustained aerial and artillery bombardments as well as deadly urban street combats at the heart of Marawi, the predominantly Muslim city and capital of Lanao del Sur province, has left 39 civilians dead, according to authorities.

The band of militants that attacked the city were led by Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, who had joined forces with Isnilon Hapilon — leader of the dreaded kidnapping-for-ransom gang Abu Sayyaf whom the IS reportedly appointed Southeast Asia’s “emir.”

During a brief truce at the end of Ramadan last month, eight Muslim leaders reportedly led by Mr. Sharief entered the conflict zone in the city to convince the Islamist fighters to release their civilian hostages.

According to Reuters, Mr. Duterte’s aide reportedly agreed that Mr. Sharief would accompany the Maute brothers’ influential mother, Farhana, to meet the President. Mr. Sharief said her sons requested she represent them in talks with Mr. Duterte.

But the talks did not proceed after the 60-year-old Farhana was arrested on June 9, Reuters also reported.

Mr. Duterte, in his speech before troops in Sultan Kudarat on June 7, confirmed that the Maute matriarch wanted to talk to him, but he refused.

“I will not talk anymore kasi marami na ang sundalo kong namatay. Marami nang police ko namatay. Putang ina, huwag mo akong bolahin diyan sa usap-usap na ’yan,” Mr. Duterte said.

(I will not talk anymore because many of my soldiers and police have died. Son of a bitch, don’t fool me with those talks.)

In a speech before local officials late Wednesday, amid reports that two of the hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf had been found beheaded, Mr. Duterte said, “I will eat your liver if you want me to. Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat it in front of you.”

“I eat everything. I am not picky. I eat even what cannot be swallowed.”

That Wednesday, Vietnam’s foreign ministry condemned the killing of the two hostages, both Vietnamese sailors.

For his part, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana said yesterday the Maute matriarch had sent feelers to Mr. Duterte for talks, but emphasized the government maintains its no-negotiation policy on terrorists.

Medyo nahabag kalooban niya, gusto niya pagbigyan sana, but at that time masyado nang malalim gulo (The President pitied the Maute brothers’ mother. He would have accommodated talks, but the conflict at that time was already deep),” Mr. Lorenzana said.

“Talking to them does not mean negotiating,,” the defense chief added.

In a press briefing at Malacañang yesterday, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella said the Palace has “no verified reports” that there were efforts to initiate talks with extremists.

“Let me be clear that the position of the Palace and the President is not to negotiate with terrorists,” Mr. Abella said — with reports by AFP and Jil Danielle M. Caro