MANILA, Philippines (Updated 6:10 p.m.) — The government has declared an all-out war against the New People's Army following President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Tuesday.
This came after the president labeled the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People's Army terrorists and ordered the lifting of a unilateral ceasefire.
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"It is an all-out war because they are considered by the president already as terrorists," Lorenzana said at a televised press briefing at Malacañan.
Lorenzana explained that an all-out war means targeting the communist rebels' armed component while sparing their peaceful supporters.
The Defense chief likened the NPA, the armed wing of the communist group, to terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
Lorenzana noted that the NPA is a huge threat to national security as its members have been menacing communities and extorting money from businessmen.
"The NPA will threaten those businessmen and also get money... We will haunt them down and maybe stop them from doing what they are doing," Lorenzana said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines have started preparing for armed conflict against the NPA following periodic skirmishes for the past two days, particularly in Mindoro and Mindanao, Lorenzana said.
Despite claims of the National Democratic Front that peace negotiations are still ongoing, Lorenzana said that Duterte's announcement of the termination of the peace talks should be considered formal.
"What could be more formal announcement of the termination of the peace talks than the statement of the president. Kung hinihintay siguro nila 'yung 'black and white' kung dadating pa 'yun, wala siguro. But the fact is the president came on national TV saying that, 'Wala na tapos na 'yung peace talks and I'm calling my people back home'," Lorenzana said.
Under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, peace talks can only be terminated upon written notice given by one party to the other.
The president, however, has already ordered the Philippine National Police to arrest members of the communist group after lifting the unilateral ceasefire.
Duterte lifted the ceasefire days after the NPA announced that it was ending its own ceasefire with the government.
The NPA said that the Duterte administration failed to release some 400 political prisoners despite the president promising to do so. The communist group also claimed that government forces had occupied their territories despite the truce.
For Lorenzana, there is no need to deploy additional troops against the NPA.
"I think we have sufficient troops on the ground in Caraga, Southern Mindanao and other places to address this issue," Lorenzana said.
"And if we can maybe if there is a need we may be transferring other troops from Luzon to areas that need these troops more," he added.
The defense chief also assured the public that the all-out war would not lead to human rights abuses.
"It is bad for the image of the military. The military will lose its credibility if abuses are committed. And we try to avoid that," Lorenzana said.
"I really punish them, discharge them or bring them to court if anyone is involved in that."
Lorenzana similarly likened the NPA to the Abu Sayyaf, the bandit group involved in several kidnappings and bombings in Mindanao.
"How are they (NPA) different from the Abu Sayyaf? The Abu Sayyaf kidnap people and then they get money. The NPA will threaten those businessmen and also get money," the defense chief said.
"There’s no difference at all. They are there to terrorize people, to giving them money, that’s extortion. So we will hunt them down and maybe stop them from doing what they are doing," he added. — with Alexis Romero