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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rejected proposals Wednesday for him to declare a state of emergency on a violent southern island to more rapidly defeat Abu Sayyaf extremists, who killed 15 soldiers in his government's largest single-day combat loss so far.
Duterte also announced that government troops and police would not enforce an arrest warrant for prominent Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari, who leads one of two large Islamic insurgent groups in the country's south, so they could talk.
While Duterte has pursued talks with Misuari's Moro National Liberation Front and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, he has ordered troops to destroy the smaller but more brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
A massive military offensive in Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province where the Abu Sayyaf has had a long presence in lush jungles, has left 30 militants dead, including an influential commander. The Abu Sayyaf, however, struck back on Monday as the country was celebrating national heroes' day and killed 15 soldiers, including one officer, in fighting off Sulu's mountainous Patikul town.
Troops went on full alert in Sulu after a cellphone message, purportedly from the Abu Sayyaf, spread and warned that the militants would launch a jihad, or holy war, and attack "the soldiers of Duterte" on Thursday, military officials said. They said they were trying to determine the message's authenticity.
Asked if he would relent to a longstanding proposal by military officials to place Sulu under a state of emergency to allow government forces to arrest militants more easily and take tougher action against local officials conniving with the Abu Sayyaf, Duterte said he would not.
"No, it's just punitive police action by the security forces of the government," Duterte said at a news conference. He said the magnitude of the trouble there did not warrant anything except the military and police.
Duterte later flew to southern Zamboanga city to pay tribute to the slain soldiers, consoling their families and saluting in front of the row of flag-draped coffins. He announced financial help for the widows and appealed to the militants to stop their brutality. Some of the soldiers had been hacked by the extremists.
"Do not add grief to the family by destroying the body," he said, addressing the Abu Sayyaf. "I will never allow such brutality, cruelty. I said just one bullet and it's done once death has been ascertained."
Duterte asked Misuari to come out of hiding after being criminally charged for his role in a 2013 rebel siege of southern Zamboanga city that left more than 200 combatants and villagers dead. Nearly 300 of Misuari's rebels were captured.
Duterte said Misuari preferred to meet him in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and replied during a phone call Tuesday that he was ready to meet the rebel anywhere.
Misuari, 77, 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 and Duterte said he would not dare put him in police detention, where he could die.
"If he dies for whatever reason, we're compromised," 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."
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