MANILA - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to Abu Sayyaf rebels on Friday to end their campaign of piracy and kidnapping and start direct talks with him, offering an olive branch towards a brutal Islamist group he previously vowed to destroy.
Only a few months ago, Duterte said there could be no peaceful solution for dealing with the Abu Sayyaf. But with 10,000 troops in the southern Philippines unable to curtail the hostage-taking and with civilians in the line of fire, he said all-out war was not the answer. "I can be nasty, I can be a bad boy but am talking about the nation. I can do it even now," Duterte said of wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, after visiting soldiers wounded while fighting its militants.
"I can bomb the hell out of them ... but what would it bring us? You kill 20,000, you wipe out, blast it to kingdom come. Would it bring us peace if I use force? "If you want to talk I can go to them anywhere. I can go alone.
Let us give our people a chance." Abu Sayyaf, entrenched in its island strongholds of Jolo and Basilan, is holding 22 captives, most of them foreigners, demanding tens of thousands of dollars for their freedom. It beheaded two Canadian captives earlier this year, prompting international condemnation.
Duterte has launched a nationwide peace process with Maoist rebels and secessionist armed groups with the eventual goal of introducing federalism in the Philippines.
But he has said that process could not include Abu Sayyaf militias because they were ruthless enemies of the state who killed innocent people for money. On Friday, he said talks could happen if the rebels halted their illegal activities.
"I will build a hospital in Basilan, don't kidnap the workers, allow them to work but if you can really stop it for a while, we'll talk," he said. Abu Sayyaf, which means "bearer of the sword", has become a source of major concern also for Malaysia and Indonesia, with crew of their commercial ships among those being kidnapped.
The group was founded with a separatist, Islamist ideology, but has found a lucrative business in kidnapping, which it publicizes via harrowing video clips posted online of kneeled captives pleading for their lives. Security experts say its strengths are its small size and its financial resources, which enable it to buy modern equipment and support among impoverished local communities.