MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he was no longer interested in peace talks with Maoist-led guerrillas and planned to hunt down the insurgents once the military has retaken a southern city from Islamist rebels.
Speaking to troops fighting pro-Islamic State militants on the southern island of Mindanao, Duterte said he would order an offensive against the New People’s Army (NPA) after Marawi City is back under government control.
“I do not want to talk peace,” Duterte, dressed in a camouflage outfit and combat boots, said late on Thursday at an army brigade headquarters about 2 km (a mile) from the battle area.
Automatic gunfire and artillery shelling were heard during the president’s four-hour visit, which was kept secret for security reasons. He distributed watches and supplies and promised soldiers pistols, body armour and other equipment.
“There is a resurgence in communist activities, and after you finish here, we will re-orient and go after them,” he said, adding that the communist rebels had taken advantage of the crisis with Islamists to attack government forces in Mindanao.
Duterte is dealing with the biggest security challenge of his presidency, with troops stretched to secure an island of 22 million people, wary of attacks by Maoists and activities by a loose alliance of militants who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, foreigners among them.
The peace process with the communists, an initiative important to Duterte, has been fraught with breakdowns, with both sides blaming each other for attacks launched during talks.
Duterte’s top peace adviser, Jesus Dureza, cancelled informal talks with the National Democratic Front, the rebels’ political arm, set for the weekend in the Netherlands after several guerrilla attacks.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he supported cancelling talks until rebels could stop attacks.
“We are all for peace,” he said in a statement on Friday. “But, we can only talk about peace when both sides mean what they say. I question the sincerity, integrity and motives of the other side.”Military commanders briefed Duterte on the progress in taking back Marawi, the heart of which has been decimated by nearly two months of air strikes.
His national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon told reporters a hard core of fighters has been hemmed in to three barangays, or urban villages, down from the 12 they held earlier. Marawi has 96 such barangays.
More than 420 militants, almost 100 soldiers and 45 civilians have been killed in the nearly two-month-long siege.