Communist guerrillas freed eight government troops whom they had taken during a raid in the southern Philippines three months ago, the military said Wednesday.
The New People’s Army (NPA) rebels described the move to release the two soldiers and six pro-government militiamen in their custody as a goodwill gesture to show they were still open to negotiations with the government despite intensified field operations, according to military officials.
Although the military announced the release of the government troops, it vowed to ramp up its efforts against the communist rebels.
“Terrorist acts and unreasonable demands by the NPA will never resolve peace and development concerns. Intensified efforts against NPA terrorists will push through. We will do our best,” Brig. Gen. Franco Nemesio Gacal, the local army commander, said.
The NPA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which, since 1969, has been waging one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies.
The NPA turned over Darlino Carino Jr., a private first class, and Cpl. Eric Manangan – both members of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces – to local officials along with the six militiamen on Tuesday, the military said. Militiamen are locals who are armed and deputized to back up Philippine security forces.
The rebels captured the eight during a surprise NPA attack on government detachments in Sibagat, a town in southern Agusan del Sur province, on Dec. 19. Last week, the same group of guerrillas freed another six other government militiamen in their custody, officials said.
The two soldiers and 12 militiamen were all seized during the attack in December. It took place days before a Christmastime truce, which the rebels had declared unilaterally, was to come into effect.
Since last week, six communist rebels have been killed in separate clashes with government soldiers in the mountains of Bukidnon and Misamis Occidental provinces, located in northern Mindanao.
The latest incident occurred on Monday, when two rebels died in a military operation in Aloran, a town in Misamis Occidental, the military said. Last week, four NPA gunmen were killed during a shootout in Bukidnon’s Lantapan town, officials said.
‘Just a fantasy’
President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described leftist, had opened peace talks with the communist rebels shortly after taking office in 2016, and freed detained leftist leaders. But he subsequently terminated the talks, accusing the communists of violating a ceasefire agreement.
The prospect of talks resuming remains uncertain unless the communist rebel group “sincerely commits to stop the attacks and extortion while negotiations are ongoing,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo has said.
“It’s about time that they realize that their 52 years of struggle is just a fantasy now,” Panelo said Tuesday, adding that the rebels “should grab” now at the potential opportunity to re-open the talks.
Also on Tuesday, Duterte said he had instructed the authorities to permit Fidel Agcaoilli, the chairman of a panel representing the communist rebels in the negotiations, to return to the country, according to CNN Philippines.
“[I] told the military and the police just allow him for after all it’s just on a – we are on a waiting period about the appropriate time to talk about peace. I am not that cruel,” CNN quoted the president as saying during a speech in southern Davao City.
Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Iligan City, Philippines.