Ex-NPA leader Sotero Llamas gunned down in Albay

- Celso Amo, Cet Dematera -
A former top communist rebel leader who turned peace adviser was shot dead yesterday by unidentified gunmen in his home province of Albay in the latest in a spate of killings of leftist figures.

Sotero "Ka Teroy" Llamas was in his minivan in Tabaco City when three gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on his vehicle, hitting him in the body and head, said provincial police chief Roque Ramirez.

Llamas, 54, was a former head of the CPP’s Bicol regional committee and of the New People’s Army in the region. The NPA is the CPP’s armed wing. Both are considered terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union.

Malacañang officials quickly denied allegations that the government was carrying out a secret campaign against leftist leaders and activists.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales has urged leftist leaders facing death threats to request police protection as he warned that killings of leftist figures could escalate.

"They should seek protection from the government," Gonzales told The STAR. "We have been expecting that something like this would happen."

Llamas’ driver, Mariano Vitara, also was hit but his injuries were not life-threatening, Ramirez said.

"They really wanted him (Llamas) dead," said Chief Superintendent Victor Boco, Bicol Region police chief, adding that he formed a police task force to investigate the killing.

He said investigators were considering all angles, including the possibility that Llamas was killed by his former comrades in the underground communist movement.

"We should have significant information on the suspects within two to three days," Boco said, adding that there had been death threats against Llamas before but that the police were still investigating who was behind the threats.

Llamas — better known by his aliases "Ka Teroy" and "Commander Nognog" — was the latest in a series of leftist opposition figures who have been killed in recent months.

CPP spokesman Gregorio Rosal, for his part, insisted that Llamas was murdered by a "military death squad."

Llamas was captured by soldiers after a skirmish in 1995 but was freed a year later as part of peace talks between the communist rebels and the government.

He served as a consultant during peace talks between the communist umbrella group National Democratic Front — the CPP’s political wing — and the government. The peace talks collapsed in 2004.

Llamas, however, remained above ground and even attempted a failed campaign as provincial governor in 2004 under the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino faction of defeated presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

In 2001, he helped form the left-wing political party Bayan Muna, many of whose leaders have been gunned down.

Llamas was one of dozens of people, including left-wing lawmakers, communist guerrilla leaders and renegade soldiers who were charged with rebellion after a failed coup on Feb. 24.

Renato Reyes, a leader of the left-wing Bayan alliance, blamed the government for the killing. He alleged that government-sponsored "death squads" have been targeting individuals who were previously involved with communist rebels.

Many leftist groups are seen as fronts of the communist insurgency and have been at the forefront of efforts to oust President Arroyo over allegations of cheating in the 2004 presidential election.

"This administration’s rampage knows no bounds. The government-sponsored death squads are targeting even those individuals who have previous involvement in the mass movement. It will come as no surprise if the government again harps on the propaganda line that Llamas’ murder is part of an alleged communist purge," Reyes said in a statement.

He charged that the "responsibility for the death of Llamas lies squarely at the doorstep of the Arroyo administration."

Another left-leaning group, Karapatan, said the "motive, the method, the pattern are too evident not to point the crime to this regime that has, in fact, tolerated, if not made a policy, (out of) the killing of its vocal critics from the left."

Gonzales maintained the possibility of a purge among the communist rebels ranks, while presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor said the Arroyo administration had nothing to gain from Llamas’ murder.

Lacson, warning that the series of killings had gone up a notch with the killing of a former top NPA leader, advised left-leaning lawmakers to look after their own personal safety.

Llamas was killed two days after unidentified gunmen shot dead Noli Capulong, a founding member of Bayan, amid a string of escalating killings of left-wing activists.

Police have issued a sketch of one of the suspects and offered P50,000 for information that could lead to their arrest.

Colleagues blamed the killings on security forces, but military officials said they could be part of a purge by communist rebels.

Chief Superintendent Prospero Noble, Calabarzon regional police director, said investigators are looking at the possibility that Capulong may have been murdered by a colleague.

Leftist activists suspect the government of involvement in the series of killings while human rights advocates allege the murders are part of a military-backed campaign.

They charge that at least 94 of their members have been killed in attacks since Mrs. Arroyo came to power in 2001.

In February, Mrs. Arroyo declared a state of national emergency to counter a reported coup by rogue military officers allied with communist rebels and elements of the opposition.

Last week, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney aired Washington’s concern over the killings of leftist militants and journalists.

Malacañang officials have asked the international community for time in resolving the spate of killings even as they branded as unfair allegations that the administration was behind the wave of violence.

The Philippine National Police is considering a "one-strike policy" in which police chiefs would be relieved if a journalist, leftist figure or government official is assassinated in his jurisdiction.

"But we are assessing it as we might be putting too much pressure on our police," said PNP spokesman Senior Superintendent Samuel Pagdilao Jr.

He said Mrs. Arroyo, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno and PNP chief Director General Arturo Lomibao "are all serious in solving these crimes."

The US concern came on the heels of a warrantless arrest of five supporters of deposed President Joseph Estrada by military intelligence agents on May 22.

The five were ordered released by the Department of Justice five days later for insufficient evidence although charges of rebellion had already been filed.

They are accused of plotting to assassinate four officials of Mrs. Arroyo’s Cabinet. One of them is an alleged member of an NPA hit squad.

The five accuse police officers and military agents of torturing them into confessing their alleged involvement in the assassination plot.

Earlier, Commission on Human Rights official Wilhelm Soriano said it may be possible that the series of killings of left-leaning activists and journalists are "interrelated and the government must act on the matter immediately." — With Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ed Amoroso, Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy, Edu Punay, Katherine Adraneda, AP, AFP

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