Duterte aban­dons back-chan­nel talks with Filipino mil­i­tants in be­sieged city

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

MARAWI CITY: Philippines 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, said 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 con­firmed that 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 about-face.

“The prob­lem with our pres­i­dent is 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.”

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.

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 south-east Asia.

Marawi Mayor Ma­jul Usman Gan­damra con­firmed that back-chan­nel talks did start but said he was not privy to de­tails.

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