Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a unilateral Christmas ceasefire with communist rebels on Wednesday, just days after branding them as terrorists and closing the door on peace talks.
The suspension of military operations is to run from Christmas Eve to Jan. 2 in the predominantly Catholic nation, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
“This unilateral ceasefire should lessen the apprehension of the public this Christmas season,” Roque said.
Troops have been stepping up operations against the communists since Duterte listed them as a terrorist group when asking congress to expand martial law in the south until December 2018.
Roque said the government was expecting the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to pull back offensives by its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) as a “gesture of goodwill.”
“Christmas holds a special place in the hearts of our countrymen,” Roque said. “In the observance of this occasion, we hope that all Filipinos would stand together as one nation and aspire for peace in our beloved Philippines.”
The declaration “pertains to combat operations” only and troops would not stand down in case of rebel attacks, he said.
Air, ground attacks kill 5 militants
Meanwhile, military officials said Wednesday that security forces had killed at least five pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in a ground and air strike in the southern Philippines a day earlier.
A military aircraft fired rockets on positions controlled by Abu Turaipe, the leader of a local IS cell operating in a remote part of North Cotabato province.
Four soldiers were wounded after troops launched a ground attack following the airstrike, Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesman for the military’s 6th Division, told BenarNews.
“Our wounded men are out of danger,” he said.
The ceasefire announcement came less than two weeks after troops announced a major advance against the NPA, dislodging its fighters from four strategic camps in the south, including one where they were believed to be making landmines and bombs.
Local army spokesman Capt. Patrick Martinez said the declaration meant troops directly on the frontline would cease their offensive immediately.
“Some will go down the mountains and stand down in the camps,” he said. “We are eager to see if the NPA will reciprocate the peace gesture of the president.”
The ceasefire has raised questions because the government has a policy of not negotiating or dealing with terrorist organizations.
Duterte said he declared it because he did not “want to add to what people are now suffering.”
“The ceasefire is a unilateral action of government to refrain from attacking,” Duterte said. “A lot of people are going around, even at night enjoying Christmas or whatever, going to Mass.”
He said armed clashes “put a lot of strain on the people” and he hoped that with the declaration, the rebels would also cease their attacks.
Also on Wednesday, two police officers who had been held captive for more than a month by rebels in the southern town of Surigao del Norte province were freed. The officers, whose identities were not released, were held in solitary confinement at an undisclosed area in the south.
Felipe Villamor in Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.