Duterte pro­posed deal to end city siege, then backed out

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte was prepar­ing to make a deal with Is­lamic State-in­spired mil­i­tants in the days af­ter they laid siege to a south­ern city, but aborted the plan with­out ex­pla­na­tion, an in­ter­me­di­ary in­volved in the process said. Agakhan Sharief, a prom­i­nent Mus­lim leader, told Reuters that af­ter a band of Is­lamist fighters over­ran parts of Marawi City on May 23 and took hun­dreds of peo­ple hostage, he was ap­proached by a se­nior Duterte aide to use his con­nec­tions with the Maute mil­i­tant group’s lead­ers to start back-chan­nel talks.

Two other Marawi sources fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter con­firmed the pres­i­dent had worked be­hind the scenes to hold talks with the Maute brothers, Omarkhayam and Ab­dul­lah. How­ever, the process was halted when Duterte in a May 31 speech de­clared he “will not talk to terrorists”. It was not im­me­di­ately clear what prompted Duterte’s about­face. It came five days af­ter an­other tele­vised speech in which he told the mil­i­tants “we can still solve this through di­a­logue”, but if he could not con­vince them of that, “so be it. Let’s just fight”.

“The prob­lem with our pres­i­dent, his mind is chang­ing al­ways,” said Sharief, a cleric who has had roles in var­i­ous peace agree­ments on the long-restive south­ern is­land of Min­danao. “He an­nounced he will no longer talk to terrorists and that made our ne­go­ti­a­tions cut.” Duterte’s top peace en­voy Je­sus Dureza said he was un­aware of any back-chan­nel talks, while his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Her­mo­genes Esperon said it was un­likely Duterte had reached out to the Maute group. “Why will he talk to the terrorists?” Esperon said. De­spite his tough rhetoric and fre­quent prom­ises to wipe out mil­i­tants, Duterte has a rep­u­ta­tion as a peace-bro­ker, hav­ing dealt with sep­a­ratist and Marx­ist re­bel­lions dur­ing his 22 years as mayor of Davao City in Min­danao, an is­land of 22 mil­lion with a long his­tory of un­rest.

Duterte’s Big­gest Cri­sis

The bat­tle for con­trol of Marawi has been the big­gest cri­sis of Duterte’s year-old pres­i­dency. Fighters from the Maute group and oth­ers loyal to Is­lamic State have been holed up in the com­mer­cial dis­trict of the town through more than 40 days of air strikes, ar­tillery bom­bard­ments and fierce street clashes with troops. More than 400 peo­ple have been killed, in­clud­ing 337 mil­i­tants, 85 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces, and 44 civil­ians. Some 260,000 res­i­dents have been dis­placed by a siege that has fanned re­gional fears that Is­lamic State is try­ing to es­tab­lish a strong­hold in South­east Asia.

Marawi Mayor Ma­jul Usman Gan­damra con­firmed that back-chan­nel talks did start but said he was not privy to de­tails. He told Reuters the process failed be­cause the rebels did not show good faith or re­duce the in­ten­sity of at­tacks on gov­ern­ment forces af­ter Duterte of­fered them an olive branch. “There was a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “But there was no show of sin­cer­ity.”

Rebels ‘Con­vinced’

Sharief, known lo­cally as “Bin Laden” due to his re­sem­blance to the late Al-Qaeda leader, would not re­veal the iden­tity of Duterte’s aide, whom he said was con­fi­den­tially as­signed to set up a meet­ing with the Maute clan. He said the aide agreed that Sharief would ac­com­pany the Maute brothers’ in­flu­en­tial mother, Farhana, by he­li­copter to meet Duterte in nearby Ca­gayan De Oro or Davao City. Sharief said her sons re­quested she rep­re­sent them in talks with Duterte. “He (Duterte’s aide) pre­pared ev­ery­thing that I needed. I told him that I need a chop­per to get the mother of the Maute brothers to bring her to the pres­i­dent. He pre­pared that. I called the Maute brothers and their mother ... I told them, I con­vinced them.”

Sharief said the pres­i­dent was pre­pared to of­fer the Maute clan im­ple­men­ta­tion of sharia law in their home­town, Butig, if he achieves his goal of es­tab­lish­ing a fed­eral sys­tem in the Philippines. Reuters could not in­de­pen­dently ver­ify that such a pro­posal had been made. The talks with the Maute group did not go ahead and the mother was ar­rested on June 9 else­where in the same prov­ince as Marawi. The Maute brothers’ father, Cayamora Maute, was ap­pre­hended three days ear­lier in Davao City.

The cleric said that the rebels would have taken Duterte’s deal to end the siege. “They agreed, they sup­ported this,” said Sharief, who last met with Ab­dul­lah Maute on June 25, when he led a group of emis­saries into the heart of Marawi to free some hostages dur­ing the Eid al-Fitr Is­lamic hol­i­day. Sharief, who owns four pri­vate schools in Marawi, some of which were badly dam­aged by the fight­ing, said he was against the rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy of Is­lamic State. But he said he was re­luc­tant to speak out against the Maute clan be­cause he still hoped he could con­vince them to end the siege. “I am a peace­maker,” he said. “I can­not ne­go­ti­ate any­more if I talk against them.” — Reuters

This photo taken on June 27, 2017 shows Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte giv­ing a speech dur­ing Eid al-Fitr cel­e­bra­tions at Mala­canang Palace in Manila. — AFP

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