PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said he does not wish to wage war with terrorists in Mindanao, but warned the Maute terrorist group “not to force my hand into it.”
Duterte made the warning as the military said it had retaken 90 percent of the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur that was overrun by the Maute Group and killed 21 more gunmen, on the sixth day of a military offensive.
Duterte went to Lanao del Sur for a military briefing and then to Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro City, where he visited members of his advance party who were wounded by a bomb attack on Tuesday in Marawi City. Maute supporters were allegedly behind the blast.
“Ayaw ko makipag-giyera [I do not want war] but do not force my hand into it,” the President told reporters in a chance interview.
“With the Maute, I said I do not want to wage a war against Filipinos but I told them that they have to stop. I hope we do not come to the point of war. So I am doing everything to prevent a war,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Asked what were his instructions during the command briefing with the military fighting the Maute group, Duterte said: “They have to go on with the operations.”
The President said it seemed the Maute group was not interested in talking peace with the government.
“Wala naman nagpapakita ng sincerity diyan [No one is showing sincerity there] so the fight goes on,” Duterte said.
On Tuesday, the President said he wanted to befriend the Maute group to end the violence in the area.
But in Cagayan de Oro on Wednesday, Duterte said he was not yet ready to talk to the group.
“I am not ready to talk to Maute group, pero ang masasabi ko, ayaw ko ng away,” he said.
Government troops retook the old municipal building of Butig and killed 21 more Maute Group members in one of the fiercest firefights since the extremists occupied the area over the weekend, a military official said.
The recapture of the abandoned municipal hall at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, where the Maute hoisted a flag of Islamic State (IS) on Friday, came as Duterte visited the troops at an Army tactical command post in Lumbayanague some 10 kilometers away from Butig.
Maj. Felimon Tan, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Mindanao Command, said that besides the old municipal hall, security forces took control of 85 to 90 percent of areas earlier occupied by Maute.
Combat operations continued as troops pursued the extremist group, which the military said had committed criminal acts not only in Lanao del Sur but also in Maguindanao and portions of Cotabato.
The group had been blamed for the September 2 Davao City night market bombing that killed 15 people and wounded 70 others.
“Aggressive military operations continue to date against the LTG (local terrorist group) with government troops now securing much of the municipality of Butig. Troops are currently completing the necessary clearing operations in the outskirts of the area,” said Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., AFP spokesman.
The death of 21 Maute fighters brought to 61 the number of terrorists killed since the government launched an offensive against the extremist group, which security officials say are linked to the IS.
Twelve Maute members were also reportedly wounded. On the government side, at least 35 soldiers were injured.
Padilla said the figure included the seven members of the Presidential Security Group and two other soldiers whose convoy was bombed by suspected terrorists in Marawi City on Tuesday.
The presidential guards were Duterte’s advance party for his scheduled visit to the Army’s 103rd Brigade.
On Wednesday, security officials said government troops also clashed with Abu Sayyaf members, killing one of them on Capual Island off the southern Sulu town of Omar in the restive Muslim autonomous region.
Soldiers recovered the body of the slain rebel, three motorboats, an automatic rifle and an improvised explosive following the Tuesday fighting between members of the 11th Scout Rangers and the notorious group also tied to the IS.
There were no reports of casualties on the military side.