Zamboanga (AsiaNews) - Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have agreed to set up a peace corridor' in Marawi to “help save civilians trapped in an area where government forces are battling Maute terrorists who are linked to the Islamic State group.
Duterte and MILF leaders held talks yesterday in Davao to tackle the ongoing crisis in southern Philippines. Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año and government peace panel chair Irene Santiago were present at the meeting.
The MILF is an Islamist armed group based in the southern island of Mindanao, where most of the country`s Muslim minority is concentrated (about 20 per cent of the population).
As the main local Islamist group, it has fought the government to create an autonomous region for the Moro people and has been involved in many military and terrorist actions in the past. Currently, it is engaged in peace talks with the Duterte administration.
At the end of the Davao meeting, the government and MILF leaders decided to create a safe zone to help who who had not yet been evacuated from Marawi. Here humanitarian staff will be able to carry out the wounded and recover the bodies of the dead for burial.
MILF also agreed to help the government ensure security in areas where there are no peace corridors. Earlier, Duterte welcomed MILF's offer to send its fighters to help defeat Maute terrorists. The latter have been besieging Marawi since 23 May.
Later this week, Filipino government representatives and MILF leaders will meet again to establish the operational details of the humanitarian initiative.
The agreement between the government and MILF is very important because it could be a turning point in ending the crisis. First of all, it shows that the armed group is against the Maute group, seen as an expression of a foreign ideology imported by international terror organisations.
Although Islamist in aspiration, the MILF's battle against the central government has deep historical, ethnic and cultural roots. Maute terrorists, many of whom are foreigners, especially Indonesians and Malaysians, lack legitimacy with respect to their aspirations. MILF instead can speak for Muslim Mindanao, and the Maute will not find support among Moro people.
For now, fighting continues. As the battle for Marawi entered its eighth day yesterday, the Filipino government called on the terrorists to surrender after a gruelling pounding from the army, which has deployed tanks and assault helicopters.
General Eduardo Año said that government forces now control 70 per cent of Marawi, but admitted that taking the remaining 30 per cent will be a real challenge. The latter is the most densely populated area, and has not yet been evacuated.
About a hundred people have been killed since the start of the conflict: 19 civilians, 20 soldiers, 3 police officers and 65 terrorists. Violence broke out in Marawi on 23 May when the Filipino army tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an extremist Islamic leader.
Hapilon and more than a dozen of his men found support with Maute guerrillas. About 50 managed to enter the city. After seizing some areas, they set fire to buildings, including the cathedral of Our Lady of the Help of Christians, and took several hostages, including the vicar general of the city, Fr Teresito 'Chito' Suganob.
Fr Chito who was captured with more than 200 civilians, appears in video appealing to President Duterte to consider their plight of the hostages and stop the military operation against their captors.
“We are asking your help to please give what your enemies are asking for,” Suganob said in the video clip shown on Tuesday on a Telegram channel used by IS.
“If you have the good heart for us, considering Mr President the about 240 prisoners of war. We are asking your good heart, please consider. We still want to live for another day, we want to live another month, we want to live three years—more. Please consider us, Mr President,” he said.
The Catholic priest also states that he was being held captive together with a female professor from Mindanao State University, two female church workers, two male and five female teachers from Dansalan Foundation College and “about 200 carpenters, domestic workers, children and youth”.
“Most hostages are Christian and Tribal Subanen,” a source in Mindanao told AsiaNews. “This is no coincidence. They have been chosen because they belong to the city's minorities."
Fr Chito is a well-known figure, even among Muslims. His is a frontier vicariate, small but active in interfaith dialogue with the city's muslim majority. He serves as chaplain at Mindanao State University, which was built at the time of dictator Marcos as a symbol of coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“There is nothing new with Fr Cito's and the others`abduction,” another source told AsiaNews. “Abductions are commonplace, and Christians have been especially targeted by Islamists in order to advance their demands on the governmetn.”
“Christians are afraid, but neither they nor the government want to highlight the religious aspect to avoid worsening tensions.” In fact, “Many hope that humanitarian initiatives in Marawi - in which Christians took central stage early on – can improve relations."