President Rodrigo Duterte denied sending an aide to start back-channel talks with the Maute group in order to resolve the Marawi crisis.
“No. I did not,” Duterte told reporters when asked about whether reports are true that he was ready to come up with a deal with the Mautes to end the crisis.
This came after a Reuters report on July 5 claimed that a prominent Muslim leader, Agakhan Sharief, said that he was approached by a senior presidential aide to ask for his help in connecting with the Mautes, led by the brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah, for back-channel talks.
Duterte, however, reiterated his earlier stand about not talking to terrorists.
“I never talked to terrorists…I would never talk to criminals and terrorists but I will talk to revolutionaries who are imbued with principles,” he told the media in Bukidnon.
“Marami na akong patay na sundalo pati pulis. Huwag nila ako biruin na storya storya lang tayo. If there has to be peace, it would really be peace…let us finish this once and for all,” he added.
As to whether there were efforts to start negotiations with the Mautes, President Duterte said: “Well, MI (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and MN (Moro National Liberation Front) probably have started initiatives there but if it would come from me, that I will ask something from criminals and terrorists, that’s impossible.”
In his speech in Bukidnon on July 6, Duterte called Sharief a “pretender.”
No verified reports
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said there were no verified reports of any effort to initiate negotiations.
“The position of the Palace and the President is not to negotiate with terrorists, including these local terrorist groups, which had intended to establish a state within the Philippine state and to remove allegiance to the government of the Philippines and the Chief Executive of the City of Marawi and its residents,” Abella told reports in a press briefing in Malacañang.
“Because this constitutes rebellion, because they submit to a foreign leader, and hold to a dangerous ideology that is inimical to the well- being of all Filipinos, including Muslim Filipinos,” he added.
Abella told reporters after a news briefing that it was the Maute who offered back-channel talks, but Duterte refused.
“Sila [Maute] ang nago-offer na makipag-back-channel. Hindi siya (Duterte),” he said.
“Tinanggihan niya iyon. Kung tinatanong n’yo kung nag-initiate siya, as far as I know, wala akong alam na verifiable,” he added.
Abella added that the offer came from Farhana, the Maute brothers’ mother.
Sharief is a cleric who had participated in several peace agreements in Mindanao.
In the Reuters report, Sharief said that he was given the confidential assignment of contacting the Maute group to start possible negotiations and that the aide even prepared a helicopter for him and for the Maute matriarch, Farhana, to take her to a meeting with Duterte in Cagayan de Oro or Davao City. Sharief added that he called the Maute brothers and Farhana to convince them.
The report also said that two other Marawi sources confirmed that Duterte tried to hold talks with the Mautes, but the process stopped when the President said during his May 31 speech that he “will not talk to terrorists.”
This speech came after Duterte told the militants on May 27 that “we can still solve this through dialogue,” but if convincing them does not work, “so be it. Let’s just fight.”
Sharief noted how the “problem” with Duterte is that he is constantly changing his mind. In the Maute’s case, it led to the halting of the negotiations.
Peace envoy Jesus Dureza said that he is not aware of any back-channel talks with the Mautes, while national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, said that Duterte was not likely to have reached out to the Maute clan.
Marawi Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra confirmed to Reuters that back-channel talks started but he was not privy to details. He said that the negotiation failed because the militants failed to show good faith or reduce the intensity of their attacks on cops and militaries.
“There was a window of opportunity. But there was no show of sincerity,” Gandamra said.
According to Sharief, President Duterte was prepared to offer the Maute group the permission to implement Sharia Law in Butig, their hometown, once he establishes a federal system. However, Reuters noted that they could not verify if the President really made that proposal.
The back-channel talks halted and Farhana was arrested on June 9, three days after the Maute patriarch, Cayamora Maute, was nabbed in Davao City.
Sharief said that the militants would have agreed to Duterte’s deal to end the Marawi conflict.
Sharief said that he was against the radical ideology of ISIS but could not speak out against the Mautes because he was hoping he could still convince them to end the Marawi crisis.