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