Philippine leader wants to talk with 2 rebel groups, China

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Friday he wanted his government to hold peace talks with the two largest Muslim rebel groups in the south at the same time and preferred to negotiate with rather than confront China on their territorial disputes.

Despite his peace overtures, Duterte assured government troops on southern Jolo Island, a hotbed of Muslim militancy, that they would be provided with more powerful weapons and better hospitals while the decades-long rebellions continue to rage.

"I would like to appeal to all that we stop this war. I am pleading so there will no longer be blood," Duterte said in a speech before combat troops in a military camp on Jolo in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu.

Duterte was referring to the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace pact with the Philippine government in 1996 but has held on to its firearms and continues to carry out sporadic attacks, accusing Manila of failing to deliver political and economic concessions under the accord.

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, signed another Muslim autonomy deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014 but a draft law that would have enforced the agreement was not passed by Congress before Aquino's term ended in June.

Duterte said he asked the government peace panel to hold talks with the two rebel groups at the same time to save on money. It has been challenging, however, to bring the two rebel groups together although both have embraced Muslim autonomy in exchange for ending decades of bloody rebellions.

Philippine officials would meet with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in Malaysia on Saturday to discuss the enforcement of the 2014 autonomy pact. It remains unclear when the government would start talks with the Moro National Liberation Front, which has split into a number of factions.

In the case of the smaller but more brutal Abu Sayyaf extremist group, which has been blamed for terrorist bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, Duterte said, "We not only fight, we destroy."

Before assuming the presidency, Duterte was the longtime mayor of Davao, where his tough crimebusting style has helped the southern city attain relative progress and peace despite the protracted insurgencies in the region. More than 150,000 combatants and civilians have died in the Muslim rebellions, which erupted in the 1970s.

The brash Duterte joked that if the insurgencies ease, troops can wait for a possible war with China. "I want this war to end so the soldiers can return home because they also have families and let's just wait for the war with China," Duterte said with a laugh, adding "the fools may start a war with us."

He quickly turned serious, however, and said he was adopting a softer approach in resolving the long-simmering disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. "We're not in a hurry to wage war, we're in a hurry to talk."

Duterte's special envoy to China, former President Fidel Ramos, returned to Manila on Friday after meeting with Chinese intermediaries in Hong Kong to pave the way for possible talks in Beijing.

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