In this photo, communist New People's Army (NPA) rebels in formation in the hinterlands of Davao in Southern Philippines. AP/File photo

All-out war vs NPA
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - February 8, 2017 - 12:00am

NDF safe conduct passes scrapped

MANILA, Philippines – The government has declared “all-out war” against the New People’s Army (NPA) following the termination of peace talks with communist rebels, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday.

Lorenzana said the military would resume its operations against the insurgents, but still believes the Duterte administration remains open to resuming peace talks.

“The President is not yet closing the doors. ‘If there is compelling reason to go back to the peace process, then we will go back,’ ” Lorenzana said, quoting the President. “So the doors are not closed. This is not cast in stone.”

Lorenzana said the military is under orders from President Duterte to prepare “for the inevitable conflict” with the NPA following the termination of peace negotiations with the communist rebels.

“It is an all-out war because they are considered by the President already as terrorists. We also consider them as terrorists,” Lorenzana said.

The government’s peace panel yesterday served a formal notice to the National Democratic Front, terminating the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantee (JASIG) and cancelling safe conduct passes for NDF members, according to presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza.

Lorenzana clarified the “all-out war” only covers the NPA, the armed component of the communists, and is not directed towards “peaceful supporters.”

He added 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 there is a need we may be transferring other troops from Luzon to areas that need these troops more,” he added.

Lorenzana 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,” he said.  

“I really punish them, discharge them or bring them to court if anyone is involved in that.” 

President Duterte terminated the talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF), the umbrella group representing the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA following the scuttling of the interim truce of the two sides.

Duterte had lifted the government’s six-month-old ceasefire Friday and the next day discarded the talks being brokered by Norway. Those moves came after the NPA abandoned their own truce and killed six soldiers and kidnapped two others in new flare-ups in the 48-year insurgency.

The government and the rebels separately declared ceasefires last year to foster the peace talks, which progressed steadily for months before rapidly deteriorating in recent weeks.

The CPP had declared they are terminating their unilateral ceasefire after accusing the government of failing to release all political prisoners and encroaching on rebel-held areas.

Duterte rejected the demand on the release of 400 political detainees, saying it is tantamount to granting amnesty.

On Sunday, Duterte labeled the CPP-NPA-NDF as a “terrorist group” and ordered the arrest of rebel leaders who took part in the peace negotiations.

Duterte also scored the communist rebels for launching offensives against soldiers despite the goodwill gestures demonstrated by his administration.

Lorenzana 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,” Lorenzana said.

“There’s no difference at all. They are there to terrorize people into giving them money, that’s extortion. So we will hunt them down and maybe stop them from doing what they are doing,” he added.

Still open

Despite the “all-out war,” Lorenzana believes President Duterte remains open to resuming peace talks with the rebels.

He said he is open to holding backchannel talks with the NDF.

“Anything that will further peace in our country, I am in favor of that,” Lorenzana said.

Last Monday, Duterte said he no longer wants to talk peace with the communists.

“I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to be fooled anymore,” Duterte had said.

Duterte also lamented that the rebels continued to commit atrocities despite his efforts to reach out to them.

“They are spoiled brats. They make demands as if they are the government,” he said. “They killed soldiers and policemen… Fine, let’s go to war.”

Troops have resumed combat operations after Duterte lifted the ceasefire, Armed Forces of the Philippines-Public Affairs Office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo said.

The operations were in response to complaints from villagers of rebel extortion and efforts to rescue the kidnapped soldiers, he said.

Arevalo reported the conduct of military operations following the lifting of the ceasefire declaration last Friday has yielded positive reports.

“There were a total of six armed engagements in various parts of the country since the President lifted the ceasefire and the peace talks on Feb. 4,” he said.

Arevalo said the military was able to effect two arrests together with the Philippine National Police (PNP), and received seven who surrendered along with the high-powered firearms and an improvised explosive device.

Army troops clashed with about 20 NPA guerrillas Sunday in Occidental Mindoro, killing one rebel, and on Saturday, troops and policemen arrested a rebel couple in Misamis Occidental for a multiple attempted murder case, the military said.

A rebel consultant, Ariel Arbitrario, was taken into custody for questioning by troops Monday at a checkpoint in Davao City.

Another rebel leader, Ronald Porras Europa, was arrested in Silay, City, Negros Occidental on Monday.

At least four other combat operations occurred elsewhere.

In Compostela Valley, suspected NPA rebels set ablaze a banana plantation-packing warehouse in Pantukan town late Sunday, military officials said.

An Army trooper was wounded during an encounter with NPA rebels in Aroroy, Masbate on Monday.

Two soldiers were wounded during an encounter with 15 suspected NPA rebels in Casiguran, Sorsogon on Monday.

Another soldier was killed and two others wounded during a firefight with NPA rebels in a remote village in Tapaz, Capiz yesterday.

On the other hand, the NPA maintained the killing of the three soldiers in Bukidnon last week was a result of a “legitimate encounter.”

NDF political adviser Luis Jalandoni had said the three soldiers might have been victims of a rubout, suggesting the military could be behind the killing.

Major Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., commander of the 4th Infantry Division, condemned the accusation, saying the rebel group itself admitted that it was behind the brutal killings.

“In a desperate attempt to cover up for the barbaric acts committed by their terrorist members, Luis Jalandoni of the NDF gave accusations and libelous statements against the AFP,” he said.

Madrigal pointed out that a day after the killing of the three soldiers, Allan Juanito, the NPA spokesman for the Northcentral Mindanao region, called up the media and owned up to the killing, saying the soldiers tried to fight back, pulling out their firearms, “but the NPA shot at them first to defend themselves, resulting in their deaths.”

The three soldiers were taken by NPA rebels in Malaybalay City in Bukidnon. The soldiers were unarmed and in civilian attire when they were snatched.

Their lifeless bodies, riddled with bullets, were later found along the road in a remote village in the city.

Arresting the consultants

The government has tightened the noose on the rebel leaders who acted as NDF consultants that Duterte wants arrested.

The Department of Justice has issued an immigration lookout bulletin for the rebel leaders who were granted temporary liberty to participate in the failed peace negotiations as consultants.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the lookout bulletin would cover NDF consultants who are presently out on bail because of government’s peace process with the communist rebels.

“These people are facing criminal cases so we have to prevent them from evading prosecution. They could possibly leave the country,” he said.

Arevalo added the NDF negotiators

cannot validly invoke the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantee (JASIG) in questioning the arrests.

“That agreement applies only to those who are in hiding whom the government invites to participate in the peace talks,” he said.

Lorenzana said the NPA took advantage of the ceasefire period to recruit new members, and they have grown in strength to about 5,000 fighters. – With Michael Punongbayan, Gerry Lee-Gorit, Ben Serrano, Artemio Dumlao, Gilbert Bayoran, Jennifer Rendon, Celso Amo, AP

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