Philippine police said Wednesday they had arrested two communist rebel consultants as part of an intensified drive ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte after four policemen were killed last week in an ambush in central Negros Oriental province.
Winona Birondo, 60, and her husband Alexander Birondo, 67, both staff members of a negotiating panel for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), were taken into custody on Tuesday from their apartment building in Quezon City, a Manila suburb, officials said. Authorities later returned to the apartment and found a stash of weapons and ammunition.
The law enforcers were on a mission to arrest a murder suspect identified as Rolando Caballero inside the couple’s apartment, said Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac, the spokesman for national police.
“During the operation, the couple interfered, assaulted and physically prevented the police officers from arresting a suspect who has a standing warrant of arrest for murder,” Banac said.
The couple, according to Banac, was brought to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit, where authorities found out that they had previous cases of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Policemen then returned to the couple’s apartment and found assorted weapons, ammunition and grenades, officials said.
The arrest came days after communist rebels ambushed and killed four policemen in Negros Oriental on July 18, according to police.
The NDFP is the political arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been waging a rebellion for 50 years.
Fidel Agcaoili, chairman of the NDFP Negotiating Panel, criticized the arrests of its two members, saying the couple should be immune from surveillance and arrest under a joint agreement with the government.
He said the two had acquired immunity from arrest because of their stint as advisers in the peace talks.
“We condemn the government’s arrest of persons without warrants and whose cases have been dropped, as in the case of the Birondos,” he said.
Rachel Pastores, managing counsel for the Public Interest Law Center, a local human rights group, branded the case against the couple as unfounded.
“Having verified that there are no standing warrants against the two, the police in an ill-prepared complaint, said that they did have one against a third person totally unknown to the Birondo spouses,” Pastores said.
In March, state forces also arrested Renante Gamara, a 61-year-old consultant for the rebel movement, who was taken into custody along with priest Arturo Joseph Balagat, 72, from a home in the Manila suburb of Imus city.
In 2006, police filed kidnapping and murder charges against Gamara in connection with the abduction and killing of a soldier, Eriberto Eclavea, in Mauban town in Quezon province, south of Manila.
Shortly after assuming office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described leftist, opened peace talks with the CPP and released dozens of detained insurgent leaders as a goodwill measure.
The relationship soured months later when the rebels were accused of prolonging their attacks in remote areas of the country, despite the peace talks.
Duterte subsequently ended the negotiations formally after communist rebels were linked in an alleged plot with the political opposition to unseat him.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.