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FILE PHOTO: Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (C) is flanked by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (L) and General Eduardo Ano as he speaks after visiting wounded soldiers who fought against insurgents of the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, at a military camp in Cagayan De Oro, Philippines June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco(reuters_tickers)
By Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday he did not initiate dialogue with Islamist militants occupying a southern town because he would never talk to criminals and terrorists.
Reuters reported exclusively on Wednesday that Duterte was preparing to make a deal with the Islamic State-inspired militants in the days after they occupied the town of Marawi, but he aborted the plan without explanation.
"No, I did not," Duterte said when asked during a media briefing if he had indeed, as Reuters reported, pushed for talks with the Maute group of militants battling government troops for control of Marawi.
"I have never talked to terrorists and I will never talk to criminals and terrorists, but I will talk to revolutionaries who are imbued with principle," Duterte said.
The battle for control of Marawi has been the biggest crisis of Duterte's year-old presidency.
His government has consistently ruled out negotiating with "terrorists" so any behind-the-scenes efforts by either side to get talks going are likely to be scrutinised.
Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, responding to the report from Reuters, said earlier the influential mother of two brothers, who with their Maute group of militants seized Marawi on May 23, had approached the government for talks.
But Duterte had rejected the offer from the woman, Farhana Maute, as government forces had suffered too many casualties by the time the offer came, Lorenzana said.
More than six weeks after the militants launched their assault in the town on the southern island of Mindanao, they are still resisting daily attacks by government forces using aircraft and artillery.
More than 400 people have been killed, including 351 militants, 85 members of the security forces, and 39 civilians. About 260,000 residents have been displaced.
The fighting in the largely Muslim town in the predominantly Christian Philippines has alarmed neighbours, fearful that Islamic State is bent on gaining a foothold in the region as it loses ground in the Middle East.
'LET US FINISH THIS'
Duterte said members of other Muslim separatist groups, some of which are involved in peace talks with the government, may "have started initiatives" to hold talks with the militants in Marawi but it was "impossible" that any attempt was made by him.
"Many of my soldiers and policemen have been killed. If there has to be peace it would really be peace. Don't play with me. Let us finish this once and for all," Duterte said.
A prominent Muslim leader told Reuters earlier that Duterte had been preparing to make a deal with the militants in the days after they began their assault but dropped the plan without explanation.
Agakhan Sharief, an intermediary involved in the process, said he was approached by a senior Duterte aide to use his connections with the Maute group's leaders to start back-channel talks.
Lorenzana said he did not know about any back-channel efforts.
"Talking does not mean negotiating," he said.
Lorenzana reiterated that the government did not negotiate with terrorists.
"Either they surrender, or we go to war," he said.
Two other sources in Marawi familiar with the matter confirmed the president had worked behind the scenes to hold talks with the Maute brothers, Omarkhayam and Abdullah.
However, the process was halted when Duterte, in a May 31 speech, declared he "will not talk to terrorists".
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, referring to any effort by the president on talks, said he had "no verified reports that there were efforts to initiate such actions".
"Let me be clear that the position of the palace and the president is not to negotiate with terrorists, including these local terrorist groups," Abella told a media briefing.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Robert Birsel)