ZAMBOANGA CITY: President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday condoled with the families of soldiers slain in fierce clashes with Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu province, promising them aid and free education for their children.
Duterte, accompanied by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Philippine military chief General Ricardo Visaya, promised to provide jobs to the widows.
The military said 15 soldiers were killed and over a dozen more were wounded in the fighting.
The President said the widows of the slain soldiers will be automatically enrolled in the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps, under which beneficiaries receive a monthly cash allowance.
“All widows will be given jobs in government and all your children will be enrolled in state colleges or schools,” he added.
Duterte embraced the widows of the soldiers and even kissed a photograph of one of the slain Muslim soldiers and saluted at the flag-draped coffins.
Duterte branded the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist group after the bandits beheaded one of the soldiers.
“I am sorry that this has to happen. I do not want it to happen again,” the President said.
“I ask you, even if we do not understand each other, don’t mutilate a person’s body,” he added, obviously addressing the bandits.
The President was referring to the mutilation of PFC. Jison Falcasantos.
“There are people who refuse to give even a little hope for peace. I don’t have any problem with Nur, we have agreed in principle that we will talk to resolve the conflict in Mindanao,” he said, referring to Misuari, the chieftain of the Moro National Liberation Front, who he spoke with on the phone before flying to Zamboanga.
“I don’t have problems with the other groups, but I have a problem with the Abu Sayyaf because they are terrorists and they behead their victims in front of the whole world, civilian or soldier. You know I hate to say this, my grandmother was a Maranao, Moro, that is why every time there is a clash here, I feel pain,” Duterte said.
He added that he is willing to offer Muslims a federal state if it will bring peace and stability in the region.
“Let’s make the Philippines a country that everybody will love, no one will be shortchanged. If we get to talk and our Muslim brothers really want a federal system, why, it’s okay. Why should we kill each other?” Duterte said.
Security officials later briefed the President on the progress of the military operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu but details of the closed-door meeting were not released to the media.
While the Abu Sayyaf is being relentlessly pursued in Mindanao, the military said the group is not likely to stage attacks in other cities including Metro Manila, a military official said Wednesday.
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, played down the possibility of a spill over of the “war” in Sulu to Metro Manila, Cebu or Davao but he gave assurances that security forces have adequate preparations for such eventuality.
“This is also the reason why we appeal to the public [that]while we are conducting these intensive military operations in these areas to be alert, to be vigilant and to be observant of their surroundings and report suspicious looking personnel as well as unattended items to the authorities so that accordingly they can act on such information immediately,” Padilla said.
Talks on diversionary tactics surfaced as the jihadists are pressured by massive combat operations launched against them in their strongholds in Sulu and Basilan.
“They are being pinned down. Yesterday and last Monday, the military encountered the group of Radullan Sahiron. You cannot just engage Sahiron because he is at the core. So because we encountered his unit, that means we are almost at the main group,” Padilla explained.