Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rejected feelers for talks from associates of Islamist militants occupying a southern town as government forces had suffered too many casualties by the time the offer came, his defence minister said on Thursday. Reuters reported exclusively on Wednesday that Duterte was preparing to make a deal with the Islamic State-inspired militants in the days after they occupied the town of Marawi, but he aborted the plan without explanation.
Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, responding to the report from Reuters, said the influential mother of two brothers, who with their Maute group of militants seized Marawi on May 23, had approached the government for talks.
But Duterte turned down the offer from the woman, Farhana Maute, because of the toll among government forces.
“At that time, the conflict is too deep, so we already have many casualties, so he said ‘no more talks because I have lost so many soldiers and policemen????????’,” Lorenzana told reporters.
More than six weeks after the militants launched their assault in the town on the southern island of Mindanao, they are still resisting daily attacks by government forces using aircraft and artillery.
The battle for control of Marawi has been the biggest crisis of Duterte’s year-old presidency.
His government has consistently ruled out negotiating with “terrorists” so any behind-the-scenes efforts by either side to get talks going are likely to be scrutinised.
More than 400 people have been killed, including 351 militants, 85 members of the security forces, and 39 civilians. About 260,000 residents have been displaced.
The fighting in the largely Muslim town in the predominantly Christian Philippines has alarmed neighbours, fearful that Islamic State is bent on gaining a foothold in the region as it loses ground in the Middle East.
‘SURRENDER OR WAR’
A prominent Muslim leader told Reuters earlier that Duterte had been preparing to make a deal with the militants in the days after they began their assault but dropped the plan without explanation.
Agakhan Sharief, an intermediary involved in the process, said he was approached by a senior Duterte aide to use his connections with the Maute group’s leaders to start back-channel talks.
Lorenzana said he did not know about any back-channel efforts.
“Talking does not mean negotiating,” he said.
Lorenzana, who was in Marawi city to assess the town’s rehabilitation needs, reiterated the government does not negotiate with terrorists. “Either they surrender, or we go to war,” he said.
Two other sources in Marawi 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”.
Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, referring to any effort by the president on talks, said he had “no verified reports that there were efforts to initiate such actions”.
“Let me be clear that the position of the palace and the president is not to negotiate with terrorists, including these local terrorist groups,” Abella told a media briefing.