Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte insists he will not talk with the terrorists fighting his country’s military and occupying parts of a city in its south, saying he is determined to drive Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) off the islands.
“I will not talk to the terrorists,” Duterte said during a speech he gave to the military in Davao City on Wednesday, as quoted by Reuters.
The statement represents a turn-around for Duterte, who urged the Maute rebels to speak with him just last week.
A total of 129 people – 89 militants, 19 civilians, and 21 government soldiers – have been killed in the Philippines’ southern city of Marawi since IS-linked Maute rebels took control of parts of it last week, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told AP.
The insurgency began after Philippine security services tried and failed to capture veteran rebel leader Isnilon Hapilon, which has led to a siege that has seen the gunmen fending off government forces ever since.
As of Wednesday, government troops had cleared almost 90 percent of Marawi, according to Padilla. Hapilon remains free, however, and is believed to be in the city.
“We believe he is still there, and we believe that is why they (militants) are putting up a very stiff resistance in the areas that they are still being held up and being cleared,’’ Padilla told reporters.
Although Duterte has insisted he will not speak to terrorists, Padilla said efforts have been made to reach out to those who may be able to set up back channel talks to help free the hostages in Marawi.
Among those being held captive is a Catholic priest, who was shown in footage being assessed by experts, which Padilla says appears to be authentic.
Speaking in the video, the priest, who appears to be under duress, says he is being held along with 200 other captives, including children.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1,000 residents remain trapped in Marawi.
On Wednesday, Duterte approved the creation of a “peace corridor” in order to facilitate civilian rescues and the delivery of humanitarian aid to displaced persons, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.
The corridor will be set up by the government and a separatist group called Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a peace agreement in exchange for long-sought Muslim autonomy in Mindanao, the second-largest and southernmost major island in the Philippines.
Padilla remained optimistic on Wednesday, stating that the jihadists had released the propaganda video containing the priest out of desperation.
“They are trapped, they are contained. They are in areas that they will never come out alive unless they surrender,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, the military deployed SF-260 close air support planes to back attack helicopters and ground troops attempting to box rebels into a downtown area in Marawi on Wednesday.
Padilla stressed that the militants were putting up a hard fight, however.
“They were able to get an armored vehicle of the police,” he said, as quoted by Reuters. “Inside, there is a supply of bullets,” he continued.
He explained that the jihadists had managed to steal ammunition and rifles from a police station and freed jail inmates to aid them in their fight.
As the conflict continues, Padilla called on the militants to “come to their senses, lay down their weapons and surrender.”
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