PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has an explanation on why the military can’t immediately defeat kidnapping and terrorist group Abu Sayyaf: He can’t carpet-bomb Sulu and kill innocent people.
Duterte made the statement Saturday night, a day after signaling openness to negotiating a truce with the Islamic State-linked terror group that had kidnapped and beheaded foreigners who were unable to raise ransom money.
Duterte said he was asked the question by reporters during a visit to wounded soldiers in Zamboanga City on Friday.
“The media asked me, this is your sixth time to visit the wounded and those soldiers who died. When will you end Abu Sayyaf? I told them, ‘What do you want?’ I mean, I could do it, I could burn Jolo now, I could bomb the place,” Duterte said, referring to the capital of Sulu, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
“And in the mountains, I can order the military to do carpet-bombing, tell them that nobody should be left standing. Do you want me to do that? And if I kill children and innocent people and all, can we survive as a nation?” he said in remarks during a reunion of his alma mater, the San Beda College of Law in Taguig City.
Duterte claimed he had more soldiers to deploy amid peace talks between the government and communist rebels.
“It’s easy. I could call the helicopters and order them to drop rockets all over the place and I report to you, ‘We scored a victory today,’ and we will do it again tomorrow. How would it appear? Human rights violation? It’s war,” Duterte argued.
On Friday, Duterte told the Abu Sayyaf: “We cannot be forever treating human beings here, seriously wounded … Let us talk. Let us give our people a chance.”
The government is already observing a ceasefire with the region’s largest Muslim guerrilla force, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Earlier this year Duterte had said he could not talk peace with the Abu Sayyaf because they were not driven by ideology.
Many analysts say the Abu Sayyaf is mainly focused on running a kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.
However, Duterte conceded that military strikes on militants could prove devastating for civilians living in remote islands where the militants are embedded. “I can bomb more if I want to,” Duterte said.
“At the end of the day, what can I say to the Filipino? That we have wiped out almost all of our Yakan, Sama, Tausug (Muslim ethnic groups) brothers? Even those not connected with the violence now?”
Duterte added: “Either we talk, if you want autonomy or if you want something else, federalism, I am ready. I am committed to [a]federalism set-up to appease the Moro,” he said, using a general term for Filipino Muslims.
The Abu Sayyaf, designated a “foreign terror organization” by the United States, was set up with the help of the Al-Qaeda group in the early 1990s.
The militants have publicly pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq in recent months, though some security analysts consider them a bandit group motivated only by money.
Suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen killed a German sailor and abducted her elderly male companion from their yacht earlier this month. They are also holding a Dutchman abducted in 2012.
In recent months, the Abu Sayyaf has been accused of kidnapping dozens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors in waters off the southern Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf militants this year beheaded two Canadian hostages after demands for millions of dollars were not met.
Talk, not fight
Duterte also said he would rather talk to, rather than fight, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces under the command of Nur Misuari.
The Duterte government had sought the lifting of Misuari’s arrest warrants in connection with the 2013 Zamboanga City siege that left at least 200 people dead and 10,000 homes destroyed, to let the MNLF join peace negotiations with its rival the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“At least, Misuari is out. You may grant that he was a criminal of sorts because of the Zamboanga siege. But if you don’t let him surface…he’s sick. If he comes out, is jailed and dies in our custody for whatever reason, then we will no longer have any peace at all. You might as well prepare the children to say you have to deal with these wars,” Duterte said.
“He (Misuari) is old, he will not run away, he cannot run away. It’s impossible. The warrant won’t save us amid conflict. We are trying to avoid the war,” Duterte added.