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MILF chief refuses to broker for Marawi attackers

/ 01:00 AM July 20, 2017

Chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Al Haj Murad Ebrahim talks to The Associated Press in Makati city east of Manila, Philippines, late Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Murad said the Islamic State-linked militants wanted his group to broker their possible withdrawal from Marawi city during the major military offensive against them but he refused to intervene. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Published: 11:01 a.m., July 19, 2017 | Updated: 1:00 a.m., July 20, 2017

The leader of the largest Moro rebel group in Mindanao says Islamic State (IS)-linked terrorists wanted his group to broker their possible withdrawal from Marawi City during the major military offensive against them but he refused to intervene.

Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told The Associated Press (AP) in an interview late Tuesday that intervening would have been difficult because President Rodrigo Duterte had declared his administration would not negotiate with terrorists.

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The nearly two months of insurrection in Marawi is the worst he has seen in his more than four decades as a rebel in Mindanao, Murad said, adding the attackers are now wracked by infighting and have expressed through religious emissaries they are ready to fight to the death.

Autonomy deal

The violence underscores the urgency for the government and the MILF to implement a 2014 Muslim autonomy deal to help stop the rising tide of extremism, he said.

More than 550 people, including 413 militants, have been killed in Marawi since May 23, when hundreds of gunmen, waving IS group-style black flags, stormed into the city center, occupied commercial buildings and villages, and took hostages.

Mr. Duterte ordered the military to crush the attackers and declared martial law in Mindanao for 60 days, which he now wants to extend up to the end of the year to deal with the worst crisis he has faced in his yearlong presidency.

Amid the intense fighting that has forced nearly 400,000 people to flee their homes, Murad said his group met with the President and offered to help rescue hundreds of residents, who have been trapped and starving in their homes in the battle zones.

Mr. Duterte welcomed the offer, he said, and the government and the rebels worked to establish “peace corridors” through which trapped residents were extricated to safety.

A group of Muslim ulamas, or religious scholars, managed to enter the conflict zone in past weeks and urged some of the terrorist leaders to end the siege and withdraw from the beleaguered city.

Terrorists’ proposal

“After a series of dialogue, they came up with a proposal, they said, ‘We will leave but the MILF should intervene,” Murad said of the terrorists’ demand that was relayed by the ulamas to his rebel group.

“I said it’ll be hard for us to intervene because the President is very clear in his statements that he will not negotiate with the terrorists,” Murad told AP, adding he asked the religious leaders to convince the gunmen “to just withdraw so this will stop” without any mediation.

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The gunmen chose to fight it out, he said. “What they said, if nobody will intervene, then we will die here,” Murad said.

After weeks of battle setbacks, the gunmen from the Maute terror group and their allies from the Abu Sayyaf bandit group had grown desperate, he said.

One of the leaders of the Maute group, Abdullah Maute, had a deadly rift with another militant, he said.

“What happened was, he was able to kill their member and he was wounded,” Murad said, citing information the MILF received.

Abdullah Maute’s brother, Omarkhayyam, had also been wounded in battle and was no longer seen on the ground, he said.

Back-channel talks

Murad’s story jibed with that of Marawi community leader Agakhan Sharief, who told the news agency Reuters on July 4 that a senior aide of Mr. Duterte had asked him to open back-channel talks with the terrorists for a withdrawal from the city after feelers came in from the Maute brothers’ mother, Farhana Maute.

Reuters quoted Sharief as saying Mr. Duterte was ready to make a deal, but later changed his mind and the plan for back-channel talks fell through.

Malacañang confirmed the feelers from Farhana Maute on July 6, but maintained the government’s policy of not dealing with terrorists.

On the same day, Mr. Duterte, speaking to reporters in Malaybalay, Bukidnon province, denied that he tried to make a deal with the Mautes.

He dismissed Sharief as a “pretender” and declared, “I never talk to terrorists.”

Farhana was arrested in Masieu, Lanao del Sur, on June 9, three days after the Mautes’ father, Cayamora Maute, was arrested in Davao City.

Infighting

Murad’s remarks echo earlier military statements that Omarkhayyam Maute had been wounded early in the fighting and that the terrorists had been beset by infighting as the siege dragged on.

Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon “is no longer being seen but his whereabouts have not been confirmed,” he said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said in recent weeks that Hapilon, among the most-wanted terror suspects by the United States, may still be in Marawi, hiding in a mosque.

The MILF has a vast encampment in Butig town, near Marawi, and hundreds of its fighters have been ordered to stay in a designated zone to prevent them from being entangled in the ongoing clashes.

Ceasefire monitors from the government, the MILF and foreign peacekeepers have been stationed in Butig to prevent any problem, Murad said.

Murad traveled to Manila to witness government and rebel representatives submitting to Mr. Duterte a new
draft legislation that aims to establish a more powerful Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.

The autonomy deal would have been a major legacy of Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, but the legislation stalled in Congress in 2015 after some rebels from the 11,000-strong MILF became entangled in fighting that killed 44 police commandos during a counterterrorism raid in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province.

The massive police deaths sparked public outrage and prompted lawmakers to stall passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).  CBB /atm

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TAGS: al haj murad ebrahim, ISIS, Marawi, Maute, MILF, news
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