Two NPA captives freed in Bicol

- Celso Amo, Cet Dematera -
PRESENTACION, Camarines Sur — Two soldiers held captive by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) in Bicol for five months were finally released here yesterday after more than three weeks of negotiations to secure their freedom.

NPA spokesman Gregorio Rosal said Army 1st Lt. Ronaldo Fidelino and Pfc. Ronel Nemeño, both of the 452nd Infantry Battalion, were released after an agreement for the police and military to suspend counterinsurgency operations for 10 days in the provinces of Albay and Camarines Sur.

"The prisoners of war Ronaldo Fidelino and Ronnel Nemeño were freed today," Rosal said yesterday.

The two soldiers were formally turned over by the NPA to chief government peace negotiator Silvestre Bello III in a simple ceremony at around 5:50 p.m. yesterday in Barangay Tanauan in this town.

The two soldiers were presented to the press but refused to discuss their experience during their five months of captivity.

"Masaya kami at nakalaya na. Mahirap ang buhay sa bundok, maraming nangyayari," Fidelino said, relieved that their ordeal in the mountains had ended.

When asked if they would go back to military service, both replied that they would.

As this developed, the National Democratic Front (NDF) welcomed the efforts of the Philippine government in appealing to the United States and the European Union (EU) to soften their stand against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA.

Bello on Tuesday issued a statement asking the US, the EU and the Dutch government to "judge the CPP-NPA-NDF through its participation in the peace process" and reconsider the terror tag.

NDF chief peace negotiator Luis Jalandoni said the appeal made by his counterpart in the peace process is a step in the right direction.

"It is a positive step (for them) to say that the CPP-NPA are not terrorists," Jalandoni told an interview with dzBB in Filipino.

Rosal, for his part, said the release of Fidelino and Nemeño is part of the agreement made by the Philippine negotiating panel and the NDF.

"The process of freeing the POWs (prisoners of war) was agreed upon by the Philippine negotiating panel and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines," Rosal said.

The two soldiers were seized in Camarines Sur on March 1 after a clash. The government initially refused to negotiate for their release despite ongoing peace talks.
An Act Of Good Faith
President Arroyo said the release of the two soldiers by the NPA augurs well as a confidence building measure for both sides to continue the peace talks.

"I thank God for the safety of these soldiers and for the peace of mind that has been restored their loved ones," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"We must continue to push the frontlines of peace through negotiations and confidence building as we try to heal the wounds of the past and carry on our mission forward across uncertain times," she said in a statement.

Mrs. Arroyo said the release of Fidelino and Nemeño culminated the "patient efforts" of both sides to hurdle the obstacles to national peace and unity.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the release of the two soldiers would likely to improve the chances of resuming the peace talks in Norway, originally scheduled later this month.

Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita also said the release of the soldiers could be a "confidence building measure" for a possible resumption of peace talks.

The rebels last week suspended peace talks, accusing Manila of not doing enough to have them removed from the US’s and EU’s lists of foreign terrorist organizations.

The terror tag had led to a freeze in sources of funds abroad for the Maoist movement.

Ermita said Manila hoped the release would lead to a "climate which is conducive to a successful negotiation."

But the defense chief said the government is not in a position to work for the possible delisting of the CPP-NPA from the terror list because of continual hostilities.

"The Philippine government is not in a position right now to work on their delisting because the violent activities are happening in the field right here," he said.

Jalandoni however expressed disappointment with Ermita’s statement, noting that it was the defense department after all that had worked for the inclusion of the CPP-NPA in the terror list.

Jalandoni explained that the violence in the field between the NPA fighters and government troops is "legitimate." It only becomes illegitimate and illegal "when a wounded and captured combatant is subjected to torture," he said.

Nemeño and Fidelino were to have been freed early this month but the rebels postponed it after a series of clashes with troops in which more than a dozen rebels were killed.

The government had been accused of double standard as it capitulated to Iraqi militants who held hostage Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz but had refused to negotiate after the capture of the soldiers.

The government later made the efforts to obtain the freedom of the soldiers designating Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. as emissary to the communist rebels.

A 10-day ceasefire was later agreed to secure the safe release of the soldiers covering the Bicol provinces of Albay and Camarines.

Andaya explained the ceasefire will continue seven days after the two captive soldiers are set free.
Prisoners Of War
Rosal said the suspension of military operations is being expected to last until Aug. 25 to provide the rebels enough time to retreat from the release site.

Troops were ordered to pull back and give way for the NPA to turn over Fidelino and Nemeño to government negotiators and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Rosal said the NPA will fulfill its part of the agreement and defer "tactical offensives" against government forces during the ceasefire period.

He said the NDF is expecting the government to reciprocate the rebel gesture of freeing the two soldiers by releasing all remaining political prisoners.

"This shall be regarded as a positive step in advancing the formal peace talks," Rosal said.

Rosal stressed Fidelino and Nemeño were treated humanely by the NPA as "prisoners of war" during their five-month captivity.

Rosal said the NPA guerrillas belonging to the Romulo Jallores Command have respected the human rights of the two soldiers as prisoners of war in accordance to "the policies of the rebel movement, the laws of the people’s revolutionary government, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), humanitarian considerations and the international rules of war."

He added Fidelino and Nemeño were even provided with "regular medical attention and treated in a humane manner."

Rosal said their treatment to the two captive soldiers is completely contrary to the terrorist tag on them by the US and EU.

"The experience of Lt. Fidelino and Pfc. Nemeño will belie the (terrorist) label," the rebel spokesman said.

But Rosal warned that they are prepared to take in more hostages from government security forces.

Jalandoni also told a select group of journalists awaiting word for the release of the two soldiers that the NPA will continue to take government troops and policemen as prisoners of war.

"We released the two (soldiers) but we will take another two or more," he said.

Jalandoni told reporters he personally signed the release of the two captive soldiers as chairman of the NDF panel last July 23.
Erasing The Tag
The government peace panel led by Bello said the appeal made before the US and the EU is consistent with the policy of the Arroyo administration to continue its efforts to negotiate peace with all armed rebel groups despite the terror tag on them.

"So it is clear these decisions of other countries (US and EU) should not affect the discussions or progress of the peace talks," Bello said.

Bello reiterated the Philippines cannot dictate to foreign governments the removal of the terror tag on the CPP-NPA.

"We are a sovereign country and so is the American government so we cannot interfere with them. We cannot directly tell them to take them (CPP-NPA) off the lists because that will constitute foreign interference or intervention," he said.

Bello stressed it is the prerogative of any foreign government to label any organization or group they believe as a terrorist organization.

The NDF led by Jalandoni earlier expressed disappointment over Manila’s position to respect the rights of countries involved in tagging the rebel movement as a terror group.

While he agreed that foreign governments are free to formulate policies, Jalandoni said such rights should not interfere with the internal affairs of sovereign countries such as the Philippines.

"On the internal affairs of the Philippines, they (US and EU) should respect and recognize the inherent right of the Filipino people to make judgments on Filipino entities," he said.

Jalandoni recently announced the decision of the NDF to postpone the resumption of the peace talks by demanding that the terror tag on the CPP-NPA should be dropped and that Manila formally denounce the US label as an intrusion into the country’s domestic affairs and conflicts. - With reports from Benjie Villa, Marvin Sy, Marichu Villanueva, Ding Cervantes, Artemio Dumlao, Jaime Laude, James Mananghaya, AFP

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