Duterte skips Independence Day rites at Luneta

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 12 2017 08:05 AM | Updated as of Jun 12 2017 11:26 AM

Philippine Marines honor guard regiment stand in formation during rehearsals at the Rizal monument in Luneta park in Manila on Thursday as they wait to welcome ASEAN dignitaries who will pay respects to the National Hero. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte skipped the 119th Independence Day celebration at the Rizal Park on Monday, with his spokesman saying the president was attending to the nation's "challenges."

Vice President Leni Robredo instead led Monday's rites while Duterte was represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

About 15 minutes before the 8 a.m. event in Luneta, Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella told reporters the president was skipping the event.

“[Mayroon] siyang hinaharap na bagay upang maayos natin ang hinaharap na challenge sa bayan,” Abella told reporters.

Cayetano meanwhile told reporters that the President was not feeling well and may have decided to take some rest after attending some events over the weekend.

“The President has been working 24/7 — meeting the troops, meeting the commanders and late last night visiting the wounded at namatay (who died),” Cayetano told reporters in an ambush interview after the rites.

“That’s why this morning he did not feel that well. [There’s] nothing to worry about, but it’s better for him to rest this morning.”

Duterte on Sunday afternoon visited wounded soldiers at the Camp Evangelista Station Hospital in Cagayan de Oro City. He then honored 8 of the 13 Marines slain in the Marawi City siege Villamor Air Base in Pasay City.

Monday would have marked the first time Duterte commemorated the country’s Independence Day as president.

Cayetano sought understanding for the president after the latter missed the traditional flag-raising ceremony, which was attended by various government officials and members of the diplomatic corps.

“That’s why he is resting or hindi siya nagpilit na magising kasi napakahirap na dalawa, tatlong oras ang tulog mo,” the country’s top envoy said.

Duterte skipped the event as government troops battled Islamist militants in Marawi City.

The President placed Mindanao under martial law after local terrorist groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf, aided by local and foreign cohorts, laid siege to Marawi in an apparent bid to create an Islamic State province in the country.

The clashes started May 23 as government troops attempted to arrest top Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.

In a bid to establish a sense of normalcy in the besieged city, government troops in Marawi have started putting up flags in key areas in the city.

About 1,000 locals, afraid of being caught in the middle of crossfire, are trapped in their houses as terrorists held key spots in the city.

The militants are also taking with them scores of hostages who are being used as human shields. This has proved to be a major obstacle for government troops hoping to end the siege soon.

Over 100, mostly suspected terrorists, have died since the clashes erupted last May 23.

The government has lost at least 58 of its troops, with the latest fatalities being the 13 Marines who engaged the militants in a fierce battle last Friday, June 9.

Malacañang had earlier decided to cancel the traditional Independence Day vin d'honneur, as the president attended to Mindanao.

Cayetano said the administration opted to cancel the vin d’honneur as a respect to those who are suffering and lost their lives because of the Marawi crisis.

The vin d’honneur usually gathers state leaders, the diplomatic corps and other guests in Malacañang on important occasions, such as Independence Day.