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Talks under way to save hostages

Restituto Padilla

Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla announces that the government forces have already taken control of Marawi City during a press briefing at the New Executive Building, Malacañang Complex, Manila on May 29, 2017. PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

The government is trying to save hostages, including Marawi City’s vicar general, Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, from Islamic State (IS)-linked terror groups through back-channel talks with the aid of civil society organizations, the military said on Wednesday.

Suganob appeared in a video clip, released on a Telegram channel used by IS, appealing to President Duterte for help and asking him to give his enemies what they were asking for.

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The Catholic priest said he was being held together with 200 other captives, including children, in what appeared to be a battle-scarred part of Marawi.

“As I’m making this report and days prior to this, there have also been efforts to reach out through the backdoor for back-channel talks with possible parties who may help,” Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, Armed Forces spokesperson, said in a press briefing in Malacañang.

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Suganob was abducted on May 23 after Maute group members linked to IS barged into the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians. Also abducted and held hostage were three church workers and 10 worshipers.

While the government was exploring back-channel talks for the release of the hostages being held by the Maute group, Mr. Duterte said on Wednesday that he would not talk to terrorists.

The President issued the statement just days after reports said he was open to a dialogue with the terrorists.

Speaking at the Philippine Navy anniversary in Davao City, the President said he would be holding discussions only with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—two Moro groups that have signed peace agreements with the government.

“I will not talk to the terrorists. We will maintain our present dialogue with the MI[LF] and MN[LF] and the traditional mainliner,” Mr. Duterte said.

Saving more lives

Padilla said exploring back channels did not mean the government was negotiating with terrorists.

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“We’re merely working closely with civil organizations whose objective is so save more lives,” he explained.

Troops have cleared almost 90 percent of Marawi, where Maute gunmen have been fending off government troops since a botched raid to capture a veteran rebel leader triggered a militant siege, Padilla said.

He said that bandit leader Isnilon Hapilon, wanted by the US government for  involvement in Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and bomb attacks that also targeted Americans in the Philippines, was believed to be still in Marawi.

Padilla said 960 civilians had been rescued, and an estimated 1,000 residents remained trapped in the city. The dead include 89 militants, 19 civilians and 21 government forces, he said.

Informal connections

The Armed Forces spokesperson said that Suganob, being a religious leader, may have established ties with other religious leaders in Marawi before the crisis arose.

“These informal connections may be used in these times and these are very important times,” Padilla told reporters.

Christians and Muslims have thrived side by side in Marawi through the years and the good relations between their leaders may come in handy now, he said.

“So there are many religious leaders from the Muslim side who are interested that Fr. Chito come out of this alive because they have been working together on many good projects together,” said the Armed Forces spokesperson.

The Muslim leaders, he said, should ask those holding Suganob hostage not to harm him because he had helped both Christians and Muslims.

Relatives relieved

Relatives of Suganob were both relieved and saddened upon seeing the video clip.

“We are happy to see him alive because we have not received any information about him,” Rufino Larroza, village chief of Maite Grande at Lambunao town in Iloilo, told the Inquirer.

“It’s him,” Larroza, a first cousin of Suganob’s deceased mother Teresita, said of the man in the video.

Larroza said he and other relatives were praying and hoping for his safety and release. “We hope his fellow priests and the government help in his safe release.”

A soldier for 10 years, including three assigned to Marawi, Larroza said he would understand if the President would not order a stop to military operations as appealed by Suganob.

“This would be giving in to the Maute and our soldiers could be endangered,” he said.

But Larroza said the government should establish communication lines with those holding the hostages to have them released.

Migrants from Iloilo

Suganob’s parents migrated to Norala town in South Cotabato where the priest was born. But he maintained close ties with relatives in Iloilo.

Suganob last visited Lambunao, the hometown of his mother Teresita, last November. He celebrated Mass at the burial of an uncle.

“We did not expect this to happen. We are praying that he will be released unharmed,” Larroza said.

Lambunao Councilor Arvin Losaria, a cousin of the priest, said Suganob was likable, jolly and known for his sense of humor.

“Every year, he goes home to Lambunao and made it a point to attend family gatherings,” Losaria said. —WITH AN AP REPORT

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TAGS: Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, Islamic State, Marawi siege, Maute group, Philippine news updates
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