ILIGAN CITY -- Civil society organizations are urging President Rodrigo Duterte to open negotiations with militants for the release of over 200 hostages and the safe passage of an estimated 2,000 persons still trapped in the besieged Marawi City.
On Tuesday, June 6, rescue missions by volunteers from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been suspended, which means the peace corridor is momentarily shelved, said Agakhan Mangondato Sharief, a volunteer rescuer.
A joint initiative of the government and the MILF peace implementing panels, the peace corridor was set up Saturday and was formally launched on Sunday. It allowed for a four-hour respite from fighting, from 8 a.m. to 12 noon, with rescuers rounding up on homes and buildings, and able to convince some 134 civilians to come out of hiding and be safely evacuated.
“We would like to make clear that any negotiation with the militants should be strictly on humanitarian grounds,” Maranao woman leader Samira Gutoc-Tomawis said.
Tomawis said that the peace corridor was established because both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Maute Terror Group agreed to it.
“So here, we see an opening for talking to the militants on humanitarian reasons,” Tomawis said.
“There is no reason why this opportunity should not be optimized. We are talking here of the lives of more than 2,000 people,” Tomawis added.
Pendatun Disimban of the Bangsamoro Solidarity Network said launching into negotiations for the release of hostages is nothing new in the way government conducts itself in these situations.
“Why is it that in the case of captives of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan, government has a track record of negotiating for their release, even to the extent of suspending the military’s pursuit operations,” Disimban pointed out.
“Here in Marawi, we have more than 2,000 lives at stake, plus the possibility of wreaking massive devastation on a city filled with history, heritage,” he added.
Disimban said that President Duterte himself mentioned about talking to the militants in order not to prolong the siege which has entered its second week now.
According to retired Colonel Dickson Hermoso, who is now assistant secretary in the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP), they established contact with the Maute group through an emissary last Saturday, June 3, to negotiate the terms of setting up the peace corridor.
Hermoso added that they were in direct contact with Abdullah Maute, younger brother of Omarkhayam. Both run the militant group which was said to have formally submitted to the leadership of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon under the IS banner.
While not identifying the person, Irene Santiago, chair of government’s peace implementing panel, said the emissary is someone who is respected by both the Armed Forces and the Maute group.
“He has been involved in the peace process, doing monitoring work, and peace education. We know him, we know his work; and we trusted him and the MILF has confidence in him,” Santiago explained, adding that the emissary was jointly identified by the implementing panels.
Hermoso said the Maute group asked that those who will comprise the rescue teams “should be a Muslim, preferably a Maranao (and) who knows the Quran verses.”
Santiago assured that the Maute group’s consent to the peace corridor did not come with any condition.
“This is a process, I guess, of negotiations. When you’re negotiating, you try not to offer anything, and we didn’t,” she told reporters.
She also said the government panel negotiated with the Maute group on purely humanitarian grounds.
“We are not negotiating anything political,” she added.
In a press briefing in Marawi on Monday, June 5, presidential adviser on the peace process Jesus Dureza said they are evaluating the conduct of the peace corridor with due consideration also on how it bears on the tactical situation being dealt by government forces.
Dureza said that ceasefire is a double-edged sword, it provides “opportunity for saving lives and for the enemy to take advantage.”
But he clarified that government is putting a premium on saving as much civilian lives as possible.
Western Mindanao Command Chief Carlito Galvez said they are looking at some 2,300 civilians, who still need to be evacuated to safety, holed up in homes and buildings in sections of the city that government forces continue to wrestle with militants.