World Bulletin / News Desk
Rodrigo Duterte told reporters Wednesday that he did not want war against a group he has officially acknowledged is connected to ISIL, but "do not force my hand".
"With the Maute, I said I don't want to wage a war against Filipinos, but I told them that they have to stop," he said, referring to the group which since Friday has been holed up in a town hall and other areas it had previously occupied in Lanao del Sur's Butig town.
"I hope we do not come to the point of war. I am doing everything to prevent a war," ABS-CBN quoted Duterte as saying.
The president's warning came after a meeting with government troops fighting Maute in the area, during which he said that the group was clearly not interested in talking peace so operations would continue.
"I don't want to fight with you. I don't want us to keep killing each other, but please do not force my hand because I also have a limit," he said
He added that the only way forward is through peaceful discussions, citing his efforts with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, communist rebels and Moro National Liberation Front founder Nur Misuari.
On Tuesday, he had said he was open to talking with Maute, believed to have around 200 members.
"I plead to all of you Muslims, Moro political leaders, men of influence, scholars, we can continue talking and try to sort [things] out," he said.
Since fighting began Saturday, 61 Maute members have been killed and 12 have been wounded.
Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., spokesman for Western Mindanao Command, said Wednesday that the military has now retaken 85-90 percent of Butig and 35 soldiers had been injured.
They have also taken down black ISIL flags that the group had flown in the area.
Around 2,450 families have been displaced in the ongoing clashes.
Five months ago, Maute were flushed out of Butig -- now abandoned by many of the town's residents -- in a major military offensive.
Prior to Monday's declaration, the military had previously described the group as being linked to the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf is one of two larger militant groups in the south who have pledged allegiance to ISIL, prompting fears during a stall of a peace process between the government and the country’s one-time largest Moro rebel front that it could make inroads in a region torn by decades of armed conflict.