MANILA (UPDATE) – Malacañang on Tuesday said the government will not negotiate with terrorists currently holed up in the besieged city of Marawi.
This, after Maute group leader Abdullah Maute reportedly offered to release one of his group’s hostages, Fr. Chito Suganob, in exchange for the release of his parents, Farhana and Cayamora, who were arrested by authorities this month.
Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the government policy not to negotiate with terrorists “remains,” and any demands made during informal talks last Sunday “hold no basis.”
“The local-religious-leaders-led talks with the terrorists last Sunday is one that was not sanctioned by government, the military and political leaders,” Abella said in a news conference in Malacañang.
“Any demands made inside, therefore, hold no basis. Let us continue to remind the public that the gravity of their and their supporters’ offense is immense. They must all be held accountable for all their actions.”
Abella said that while the government acknowledges the role of the religious leaders, the government will abide by “certain parameters” with regard to the Maute group’s demand for a swap.
An Inquirer report on Tuesday said some 8 Muslim leaders on Sunday met with Abdullah, one of 2 brothers leading the siege of Marawi. The meeting reportedly occurred when the military enforced an 8-hour ceasefire to allow residents to celebrate the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr.
Maute reportedly made the demand to swap during the meeting.
According to the report, the terror leader also said his group was willing to withdraw from Marawi if the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) intervenes and negotiates with the government.
Abella said this is being considered by the government.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), meanwhile, said it will let the government resolve the issue.
“It’s a sensitive matter. Let’s leave it to the government and Fr. Chito’s bishop to decide on the matter. Our only wish is for the safe release of the hostages,” CBCP said in a statement from its public affairs committee.
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, Joint Task Force Marawi spokesperson, said on Monday that Suganob was seen alive over the weekend by a civilian who has since been rescued from the war zone.
In a press briefing Tuesday, the military affirmed the Palace’s stance, and noted that they are still verifying the alleged Maute group’s demand.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines does not negotiate with terrorists,” Herrera said.
“These are all for validation because we have not engaged yet the emissary. We don’t have any coordination with the emissary pertaining to that report,” he added.
The siege in Marawi has been going on for over a month, after the Maute group, led by brothers Omar and Abdullah, captured parts of the city in an alleged bid to establish a province of the Islamic State or ISIS in Mindanao.
The clashes erupted after government troops attempted to arrest Abu Sayyaf senior leader Isnilon Hapilon in the city on May 23. Hapilon evaded arrest and reportedly left the city after weeks of fierce clashes, the military said.
Abella said the reported “abandonment” of Hapilon of his group still needs to be validated by the military.
“Granting that this is true, it would be a clear sign of cowardice because he abandoned his companions and ran away from the battle,” he said.
“It may also be indicative of the infighting that may now be going within the group. It may be a matter of time before they disintegrate or self-destruct.”
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to ISIS is now the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The emergence of pro-ISIS groups in the country has raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, who fear that the terror group is seeking to establish a new front in Asia following setbacks in Iraq and Syria.