MANILA - Mere minutes after President Duterte's helicopter took off from the tactical command post of the Armed Forces in Lanao del Sur last November 30, an emissary sent by the President also left for Butig and met with the Maute Group leadership.
Omar Ali Solitario, the former mayor of Marawi City, and relative of the Mautes by marriage, talked to brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute to extend the President's offer for peace talks to end the war.
Sources privy to the negotiation efforts said the Maute Group expressed willingness to talk.
Another source also revealed that the Mautes were now planning to consolidate their position or demand, and possibly put together a "panel" of sorts that would represent the group should talks push through.
This initiative to address the Maute group conflict formally started in on November 25, when President Duterte invited influential relatives of the Mautes to meet with him in Davao City to address the problem.
The source, who was there at the meeting, said that in attendance were Solitario, former Marawi mayor Fahad "Pre" Salic, whose wife Rasmia - also present - is the niece of Farhana Maute, mother of the Maute brothers.
Solitario and Salic know Duterte from their days as city mayors. Solitario was personally asked by Duterte to help. He is deemed an effective intermediary because of family ties to the Mautes, and because the Maute brothers have high regard for him as a former commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Duterte's pronouncements in subsequent media statements then hinted at his desire to make peace with the Maute group, who has espoused the ideology of ISIS and operates under the black ISIS flag.
The President said as much in his visit to Lanao del Sur near Butig, where he pleaded to local leaders to help him fin the peaceful solution. He also questioned how the Mautes could prescribe to a system of belief that comes from the Middle East, far removed from the Moro experience and struggle.
Solitario reportedly just returned from yet another trip to Davao. Another emissary is scheduled to meet with Duterte today in Malacañang to give him feedback about the Maute Group's response.
Military operations against the ISIS-influenced Maute group continue. Despite Duterte's call for peace, he did not give the military any orders to stand down or even scale down its operations.
Butig Mayor Jimmy Pansar said Duterte also verbally approved his request to place more troops that will have a permanent presence in crucial parts of Butig, this being the third time for the Maute group and the military to clash in the municipality.
Local leaders of the town have asked the permission of the mayor and the military to carry their own firearms in order for them to defend their own villages from the Maute group.
Abdullah Maute has made calls for people to refer to them as Dawla Islamiyah, or Islamic State. Social media accounts known to communicate messages from the group say it is only the military who calls them "Maute Group." AFP spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla has confirmed that the group has been listed in the website of the Islamic State in Syria as one of the groups supporting the fight to create a Muslim caliphate, but stops short of saying that this counts as official recognition that they are now really part of ISIS.
The 103rd Infantry Brigade has said that fighters from Basilan and Maguindanao have joined the Maute fight. Mayor Pansar said they see and hear Tagalog-speaking fighters, which they believe are Balik Islam. Brigadier General Padilla confirmed that members of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) have also joined in. Months ago, videos and photos show extremist leader Tokboy of the Ansar Kilafa Philippines or AKP in Sultan Kudarat joining the Maute group in Butig, where Tokboy was filmed pledging his group's allegiance to Isnilon Hapilon, head of the Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan, and considered the emir or overall leader of the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines.
The Maute group has beheaded two sawmill workers this year, making them dress in orange overalls while the group was dressed in black, in the fashion of the Islamic State in Syria. Writings at a school in Sitio Ragayan - one of the Maute group strongholds in Butig overrun by the military in February - indicated in the Maranao dialect that all kuffar (non-believers) and Christians should be killed.