MILF calls on Maute to free Fr Chito, says Allah will reward them

The priest has been held by terrorists since 23 May with another 240 civilians. “In the time of prophet Muhammad, He respected so much religious leaders and non-combatants,” says MILF leader Ghadzali Jaafar. The latter is helping the Filipino government to set up a humanitarian corridor. So far, 250 people have been rescued. The New People's Army has joined the fight against jihadists.

Zamboanga (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A top official with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has called for the release of a Catholic priest and more than 200 other civilians held since 23 May by the Islamist Maute group in Marawi City.

“We appeal to those who are still holding captive Fr Chito (Teresito Suganob) to release him in the name of peace,” said MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar.

Fr Chito, vicar-general of the prelature of St Mary in Marawi and chaplain of the Mindanao State University (MSU), was snatched by militants in the early hours of the siege on 23 May, along with two church workers and a dozen of parishioners.

In a video released by Maute guerrillas last week, the clergyman said he was part of a group of about 240 hostages.

“He is a priest, a religious leader. In the time of prophet Muhammad, He respected so much religious leaders and non-combatants, like children, women, the elderly.” By releasing him “the soonest possible time, we are sure that such deed will be rewarded by Allah,” Jaafar added.

Fr Chito has worked for over 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.

In addition to interfaith dialogue, he has been active in helping Maranao activists advance the cause of clean elections in the province. The Maranao are a Muslim ethnic group in Mindanao.

The MILF is also helping the Filipino government to set up a peace or humanitarian corridor in a bid to rescue civilians still holed up in homes and buildings for about two weeks, unable to flee for fear of being hit in the crossfire.

President Rodrigo Duterte said yesterday that he had accepted the offer by MILF leader president and founder Nur Misuari to send some 2,000 of his men to join the fight against the Maute group.

The peace corridor was active yesterday during a four-hour truce, albeit limited to a three-kilometre area through the Marawi business district.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the “humanitarian pause” resulted in the rescue of 179 civilians whilst 95 people were rescued at around 6 am in the Dansalan area. Two soldiers were injured during operation when an elderly woman was killed by sniper fire from the Maute side.

The Duterte government has offered MILF fighters involved in rescue missions the opportunity to become regular members of the Armed Forces of Philippines.

The president made the same offer to the Maoist rebels of the New People's Army (NPA), even though the government interrupted the fifth round of peace talks with the paramilitary group last week.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), of which NPA is part, yesterday decided to join the battle against Maute guerrillas. It will observe a ceasefire with the Filipino government during the Marawi conflict.

The NDFP announced that the decision entails redeploying NPA fighters to Marawi and North Cotabato to face directly the terrorist group.