MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he planned to meet a fugitive Muslim rebel wanted over a deadly siege, promising to ignore an arrest order in an effort to forge peace.
The announcement was the latest dramatic attempt by the firebrand leader to end decades-long insurgencies with Muslim and communist rebels that have claimed more than 150,000 lives.
Duterte said he spoke on Tuesday to Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), one of the two major Muslim rebel groups based in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines.
“I told him: ‘Nur, I have no intention of detaining you or putting you in the custody of the government. You can simply walk out there, ask any soldier and police to escort you to where we can talk’,” Duterte said.
Duterte, 71, offered to meet Misuari, 77, in the rebel leader’s stronghold in the war-torn southern island of Jolo or in the presidential palace in Manila.
But Misuari said he preferred they meet in Malaysia before representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), while promising a quick peace deal, according to Duterte.
“He said in two days we can sign something and end the fighting,” Duterte said.
The government of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, filed rebellion charges against Misuari for allegedly orchestrating a siege in the southern city of Zamboanga in 2013 that left more than 200 dead.
The offence is punishable by at least 30 years in prison, but Misuari was able to avoid arrest by remaining under the protection of his militants on Jolo, which is also home to the notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang.
Misuari founded the MNLF in 1969 to wage a guerrilla war for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, where most of the nation’s Muslim minority live.
Misuari signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 in return for the creation of a Muslim autonomous area.
The breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front then continued the rebellion, but in recent years also began negotiating for peace.
Misuari allegedly orchestrated the 2013 Zamboanga siege because he felt the MNLF was being sidelined under the planned MILF peace deal.
Duterte is aiming to forge a final peace agreement with both groups.
The president, in power for just two months, has also launched peace talks with communist rebels. To kickstart the peace process, he released 17 jailed communist leaders. AFP