Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a stop to all back-channel peace negotiations with communist rebels for the next three months, his spokesman said Thursday, as military officials ordered air and ground assaults against guerrillas on the southern island of Mindanao.
Duterte’s move to halt efforts to end one of Asia’s longest insurgencies occurred a day after the communist guerrillas warned of intensified attacks against government targets.
“We are confirming that the government of the Philippines has suspended all back-channel talks with the National Democratic Front while we review in the next three months all the agreements we had signed in relation to the peace talks,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters. The National Democratic Front (NDF) is the political front of the communist movement in the country.
Roque said government negotiators would consult with the public and relevant officials about the way forward, as he thanked the Norwegian government for providing a neutral venue for the talks aimed at ending the 49-year-old insurgency.
Duterte will also use the time to review all past agreements signed by his predecessors with the communists, including one that gave rebel negotiators “safe conduct passes” or immunity from arrest, Roque said.
Duterte, a former university student of Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison, opened talks with the rebels shortly after he was elected president in 2016.
Duterte freed top CPP officials and allowed them to travel to join talks in Europe. However, he subsequently scrapped negotiations after the rebels continued with attacks in the countryside despite ceasefire agreements.
He has threatened to totally scrap the talks altogether, but softened his stand early this year. He has invited Sison, who is in self-exile in Europe, to fly home, an offer that the insurgent leader thumbed down.
The next round of talks was expected to begin in Oslo on June 28, but Manila recently announced that they would not go ahead.
On Wednesday, the New People’s Army (NPA), the CPP’s armed wing, said Duterte’s condition to hold talks in the Philippines was “totally unacceptable to the revolutionary forces.”
“The NPA will surely frustrate the aims of the Duterte regime by waging extensive and intensive guerrilla warfare,” the rebel group said in a statement.
It was not clear how Thursday’s announcement would affect the overall peace process after the three-month period passed.
Reacting to the development on Thursday, Sison said that for the talks to go ahead, they should be held on neutral ground and all agreements that the group had signed with the previous Philippines administrations be honored.
He warned rebel forces to brace for intensified military attacks in the next three months, even as he said guerrilla forces were prepared to thwart government offensives.
“There is no ceasefire in the next three months because Duterte wants to launch his military offensives first and find out the results,” Sison said in a statement sent to BenarNews.
“It is the responsibility of Duterte that he continues to terminate the peace negotiations, aggravates the armed conflict and shows no interest in peace negotiations,” he said. “Duterte continues to kill the peace negotiations.”
Sison’s statement came as the Philippine military launched air and ground assaults against communist forces on the southern island of Mindanao on Thursday.
Lt. Col. Rhojun Rosales, commander of the 39th Infantry Battalion, said the target of the offensive was a local communist front spotted by intelligence personnel massing up in Davao del Sur and North Cotabato provinces.
“The rebels were massing, conducting military drills in an apparent show of force, including their newly recruited members,” Rosales said, adding it was too early to say if there were any casualties.
“They plotted to launch simultaneous attacks on Army positions, our operation prevented that plan,” Rosales said. He did not provide an estimate on the rebel strength.
The offensive took place after suspected NPA rebels detonated a bomb on Thursday in the southern town of Magnet, wounding six soldiers, including a junior officer, authorities said. One of the wounded was in critical condition. Officials did not provide details on the bombing.
The NPA has been waging a rebellion that has killed tens of thousands in the Philippine countryside since 1969, making the insurgency one of the world’s longest and deadliest. Military estimates placed the NPA strength at more than 5,000 scattered in more than 60 guerrilla fronts nationwide.
On Thursday, Roque also warned that rebels who had been freed by Duterte earlier to join the peace talks would be re-arrested.
Roque belittled Sison’s comments, saying that they were the communist leader’s own “personal declarations.” Duterte wanted peace as his legacy, contrary to Sison’s statements, Roque said.
Jeoffrey Maitem from General Santos City, Philippines, contributed to this report.