MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Muslim rebel leader emerged Thursday from three years of hiding in the southern Philippines to meet the president, who has reached out to him as part of efforts to tame a decadeslong Muslim rebellion.
Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari came out of hiding after a court suspended the serving of an arrest warrant for him for six months so he could hold talks with President Rodrigo Duterte and other officials. A Cabinet official fetched Misuari from southern Jolo island by jet.
An elated Duterte spoke on nationwide TV to announce the rebel leader's presence in the presidential palace in Manila. Unaware that he would be asked to speak, Misuari expressed support for the president, his anti-drug crackdown and a government offensive against ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf militants in a rambling speech.
"I was already determined to stay put in the mountains were it not for his call," Misuari said, referring to the president.
Duterte, who took office in June, has pursued peace talks with Misuari's rebel front and a larger Muslim insurgent group but has ordered the military to destroy the smaller but brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and bombings.
Now in his 70s, Misuari denied what he said were media insinuations that his rebel group is a spent force. His rebels have helped negotiate for the release of some Abu Sayyaf hostages. Misuari said without offering any evidence that some Malaysian officials were involved in the ransom kidnappings.
A former university professor, Misuari instigated a Muslim separatist rebellion in the south during dictator Ferdinand Marcos's rule in the 1970s, but accepted limited autonomy for minority Muslims in the south and signed a 1996 peace deal with the government. Many of his rebels, however, refused to lay down their arms and continued on-and-off attacks.
Although he has faded into the background and is now sickly, Misuari still commands a sizable armed group mostly on Jolo. Duterte has said he would not dare put him in police detention, where he could die.
"If he dies for whatever reason, we're compomised," Duterte said. "There is going to be a conflagration, it'll be hard for us. He's the only known leader who has the influence and the stature."