MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The leader of the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group says 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.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front told The Associated Press in an interview late Tuesday that intervening would have been difficult because President Rodrigo Duterte has declared his government would not negotiate with terrorists.
The nearly two months of insurrection in Marawi is the worst he has seen in his more than four decades as a rebel in the country's south, Murad said, adding the attackers are now wracked by infighting and have expressed through religious emissaries they are ready to fight to the death.
The violence underscores the urgency for the government and the Moro rebel group 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 Islamic State group-style black flags, stormed into the city center, occupied commercial buildings and villages and took hostages. Duterte ordered troops to crush the attackers and declared martial law in the south 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 from 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. 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 militant leaders to end the siege and withdraw from the beleaguered city.
"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 militants' 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.
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 militants have grown desperate, he said. One of the leaders, Abdullah Maute, had a deadly rift with another militant. "What happened was, he was able to kill their member and he was wounded," Murad said, citing information his rebels received.
Maute's brother, Omarkhayyam, had also been wounded in battle and is no longer seen on the ground, he said.
Murad's remarks echo earlier military statements that Omarkhayyam Maute has been wounded early in the fighting and that the militants have been beset by infighting as the siege dragged on.
A militant leader, Isnilon Hapilon, "is no longer being seen but his whereabout has 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.
Murad's rebel group 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 rebel group and foreign peacekeepers have been stationed in Butig to prevent any problem, he said.
Murad traveled to Manila to witness government and rebel representatives submitting to Duterte a new draft legislation that aims to establish a more powerful Muslim autonomous region in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The autonomy deal would have been a major legacy of Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, but the legislation stalled in Congress in 2015 after some rebels from the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front became entangled in fighting that killed 44 police commandos during an anti-terrorism raid in the south. The massive police deaths sparked public outrage and prompted lawmakers to stall passage of the bill.
Wearing a business suit, the 69-year-old Murad, who says he met late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden when he was sent as a young insurgent for combat training in Afghanistan decades ago, underscored that, if the autonomy deal was set in place, the more moderate rebels in his group can provide crucial help in dealing with the smaller but radical groups that have emerged in the south.
The deal aims to create a regional police force, which may enlist qualified insurgents, who fought and grew up in the battlefields in the south that may now be transformed into prosperous communities.
"The revolutionaries are very, very, very knowledgeable of the terrain," Murad said.