Marawi sultan offers to act as mediator

ILIGAN CITY -- A Maranao traditional leader is offering to mediate between Maute Group and government forces to spare civilians still trapped inside the Marawi City and pave way for the possible release of hostages.

Hamidullah Atar, sultan of Marawi, said the pronouncement following President Rodrigo Duterte’s earlier offer for a dialogue with the militants to resolve the siege instead of shooting it out with government forces.

This developed as civil society, religious and traditional leaders in Lanao del Sur renewed their call on President Duterte to “take decisive steps to ease the humanitarian situation” in the province as well as prevent the further destruction of Marawi City.

u201c... Our hearts bleed with the thought that with the continued fighting, Marawi could suffer the fate of Zamboanga’s Rio Hondo community in 2013,” read a joint statement of 15 organizations.

u201cMore hurting is the recollection of a rather distant memory, that of the burning of Jolo in 1974. Please spare Marawi from a similar fate, Mr. President,” the statement added.

u201cThe best measure of the success of government’s security operation should be how civilians and their communities are being protected instead of being made collateral damage,” the statement read.

Maranao woman leader Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, said that even as President Duterte opened a window for dialogue, “nothing is done to make it operational.”

Atar, who is also conflict mediation professional, said talks with the Maute group can be done through the traditional mechanisms as they are also Maranaos.

The sultan related that he was able to link up with several members of the Maute group while he was trapped in Marawi for four days.

u201cThey showed openness to discussing issues relating to how to end the current hostilities,” Atar said.

u201cI am keen on pursuing any opening for dialogue in the interest of protecting my city from further destruction and rescuing the civilians,” added Atar.

Atar said that prior to his evacuation from Marawi, the last overtures from the Maute group is for firming up a deal on the release of captives, like Catholic priest Teresito “Chito” Suganob, held captive by the Islamic State-inspired militants since May 23, in exchange for the military easing its offensives against the militants’ positions.

On Tuesday, 16 civilians trapped from the fighting were rescued from Raya Madaya as military defensive on the militants continue.

Atar said that he relayed to the Maute group his interest that the matter of Suganob’s eventual release will be taken up.

u201cHe (Suganob) is a dear friend. We have been together in interfaith dialogue processes; I cannot turn my back on him,” Atar said.

Atar said information he got from those, who chose to stay in Marawi indicated “Fr. Chito is still alive.”

Agakhan Mangondato Sharief, a civil society leader in Lanao del Sur, confirmed that Suganob is still alive.

He said such information was relayed to him by residents, who refused to leave the city to protect their properties.

Sharief used to head the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) contingent to the joint ceasefire monitoring team in Lanao del Sur, hence, commands a wide network of grassroots-based monitors.

u201cWe will never leave the fate of Fr. Chito to chance,” he said.

Atar and Sharief made their respective confirmations about the fate of Suganog some two hours before an undated proof of life video circulated in social media around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Suganob, vicar-general of the prelature of St. Mary in Marawi, was snatched by militants in the early hours of the siege on the city, along with two lady church workers. As they fled, the militants torched the church building.

The priest has worked for some 20 years in various capacities in the prelature, which was established by the Vatican in the mid-1970s “to provide a reconciling presence” among the Muslims. Apart from interfaith dialogues, Suganob is also active in helping Maranao activists advance the cause of clean elections in the province.

In the proof of life video, Suganob said he is part of a throng of some 240 individuals being held captive by the militants in an undisclosed location in the province.

Speaking amid ruined buildings, he specified that he is with a female professor of the Mindanao State University, two lady church workers, which presumably are the ones taken with him at the prelature, two male and five female teachers of the Dansalan College Foundation, and some 200 carpenters, house helpers, children, youth, Christians and Subanen people.

In the video, Suganob, who wore a black long-sleeved shirt and dark-colored jeans, appealed to President Duterte to withdraw government forces away from Marawi and Lanao del Sur and stop the air strikes.

u201cYour enemies are ready to die…,” Suganob told Duterte, in his usual extemporaneous manner of speaking.

As if speaking for other captives, Suganob said: “We are asking your good heart, please consider us. We want to live another day, another week.”

u201cDo not allow us to be collateral damage of war,” Suganob added.

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