While presidential office repeats government’s stance on talks with terrorists, defense secretary says ‘feelers’ were made.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s office denied media reports on Thursday that a prominent Muslim leader had been approached to initiate dialogue with ISIS-linked Maute fighters in the south even as the defense secretary admitted contacts were made recently.
Duterte declared martial law on the island of Mindanao after hundreds of Daesh-inspired Maute group backed by Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf group laid siege to Marawi city in late May.
The fighting, which entered the 45th day on Thursday, has claimed the lives of dozens of civilians and soldiers while hundreds of suspected militants have also been killed; an estimated 246,000 plus residents have also been displaced.
Muslim community leader Agakhan Sharief was quoted in media outlets as saying on Wednesday that he was approached by Duterte’s aide who asked him for his help in starting backchannel talks with leaders of the Maute group.
Sharief is known to have played roles in various peace agreements in Mindanao in the past as well. However, the latest effort made no headway. He said the problem with Duterte is that “his mind is changing always”, hence, the halt in the negotiations, according to ABS-CBN.
The community leader’s claim stands in stark contrast to the president’s earlier stance when in May 31 Duterte had declared he “will not talk to terrorists”.
The presidential office denied Sharief’s revelations.
“We have no verified reports that there were efforts to initiate such actions as Agakhan Sharief claims,” spokesman Ernesto Abella said during a press briefing at the Presidential Office on Thursday.
Abella reiterated the government’s stance on not negotiating with terrorists.
“The position of the palace and the president is not to negotiate with terrorists, including these local terrorist groups which intended to establish a state within the Philippine state,” he said.
However, ABS-CBN quoted Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as saying on Thursday the government had indeed tried to engage with Maute.
“I know that the president received some feelers from Farhana, the Maute matriarch,” but since the government side had already suffered many fatalities, “he [Duterte] said: I won’t talk to them anymore”.