DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Wednesday urged President Rodrigo Duterte to wage an all-out offensive against the terrorist Maute group, after the Chief Executive hinted that he was open to talking peace with them.
“I will push for sustained and all-out operations against the Maute. They have been committing crimes with impunity,” Lorenzana told Manila Standard. “We need to finish them.”
Lorenzana warned that the Maute group’s connection to the Islamic State was an imminent threat to the already fragile security situation in the country.
He said if the international coalition made headway in its military offensive in Iraq, the Islamic State could transfer to the Philippines.
Various militant groups in Mindanao, including the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf, were reportedly courting the jihadist group for recognition as a ‘wilayat’ (province) in Southeast Asia.
Lorenzana said that their recent acts suggests that they have already established connections with the global terrorist organization, contrary to their earlier position last August that they weren’t much of a threat.
“They’ve always said they support IS, and they fly their flag. With those indications, you can come to the conclusion that maybe that connection is already there,” Lorenzana said in Filipino.
On Wednesday, Duterte warned the Maute group, saying that they should not force him to declare war against them.
“Do not force me because I might be provoked to do something drastic,” Duterte said in his speech before troops at the Tactical Command Post in Lumbayanague, Lanao del Sur, some five kilometers away from the war zone in Butig town.
“When the time comes that it’s going to be a war against terrorism and drugs, I will tell you now that I can be harsh... as harsh I can ever be,” he added.
In an interview with reporters at Camp Evangelista Station Hospital in Cagayan de Oro City, Duterte said the Maute group should stop waging war on the government.
“For the Maute, I said I do not want to declare war against Filipinos, but I told them that they have to stop. I hope we will not reach that point that we have to go to war. So I am doing everything to prevent war,” Duterte said.
“I don’t want to go to war, but do not force my hand into it,” he added.
Duterte said that he hoped to have a “middle ground” with the Maute group, whom he cited in previous speeches were provoked by “Moro nationalism.”
“It’s very easy to start a war. But how to stop it and to heal the wounds, it would be hard. I wish we could have a middle ground,” Duterte said.
The President said he tried sending feelers to the Maute group but to no avail.
“I have long opened [communication lines with them]. This problem cannot be resolved through sheer courage alone. But there is always a time when I have to protect everybody,” Duterte said.
Despite threats to his security, the President pushed through with his visit to Lanao del Sur Wednesday, when he landed at the Tactical Command Post in Lumbayanague, a mere five kilometers from the war zone in Butig.
Nine soldiers, including members of his security group were injured Tuesday with two in critical condition on Tuesday after an improvised bomb exploded near a presidential convoy in Marawi City.
On Tuesday, Duterte suggested he could “befriend” the Maute group to avoid conflict.
He also urged them to abandon their “losing cause” and talk with the government.
“How could you be a Maranao? You’re a Tausug… and you take orders form outside just to fight for what? Won’t this end?” he said.
It has long been against official policy to negotiate with terrorist groups. The Maute group was behind the Davao City night market bomb attack that killed 15 people in September.
On November 24, the group occupied the abandoned town hall of Butig in Lanao del Sur and reportedly raised the black flag of IS. The Army has sent elite troops to flush out the group.
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