Philippine communist guerrillas launched a series of attacks in the south during the past five days, including near a city where President Rodrigo Duterte was spending the Easter holidays, officials said Monday.
On Sunday, New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas stormed a hinterland village in the southern city of Davao where Duterte was holidaying during the weekend, terrorizing the community and burning heavy equipment, police said.
This latest attack came days after more than 60 lawmakers had urged the central government to resume stalled peace talks with the guerrillas.
“The fact that three consecutive attacks happened during the observance of Holy Week all the more angers us,” Presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza said.
“This unnecessarily squanders whatever gains we have been quietly getting lately in our common efforts with the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA-National Democratic Front leadership to achieve just peace through the negotiations table,” Dureza said.
Senior Inspector Maria Teresita Gaspan, a spokeswoman for Davao city police, said heavily armed NPA fighters set four dump trucks and a back hoe on fire during a pre-dawn raid in the villages near the city’s Buhangin district.
Gaspan said two groups of guerillas burned the trucks several hours before a third band of communist rebels raided another village, Dalagdag, and set fire to a piece of heavy equipment.
“Police have been sent to the scene of the latest incident to investigate. There were no civilians hurt in the separate incidents,” Gaspan said.
On March 30, troops thwarted an attempt by communist rebels to burn heavy equipment being used for various road projects in Digos City, said Lt. Col. Rhojun Rosales, commander of the 39th Infantry Battalion in the area.
A soldier was wounded as security forces engaged the guerrillas in a 30-minute firefight, he said.
The attacks marred Holy Week celebrations in the mostly Catholic Philippines. Apart from the incidents in Davao, clashes also erupted in the nearby province of Misamis Oriental, where troops killed two NPA guerrillas on Thursday and Friday, officials said.
The military said it was bracing for more attacks after the NPA marked its 49th anniversary last March 29, making it the longest-running communist insurgency in Asia.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque welcomed the call by lawmakers to reopen talks with the communists, but said the rebels had become “spoilers” of the peace process and were engaged in past “double-talk and treachery.”
Talks would only resume if the rebels laid down their arms and ceased their attacks and extortion activities, he said.
President Duterte, a self-described leftist and one-time student of Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, launched peace talks with the CPP and its armed wing, the NPA, shortly after winning the presidency in 2016.
But late last year, Duterte terminated the talks and declared both groups terrorist organizations. He accused the communists of insincerity in negotiations because they had attacked government positions despite a ceasefire agreement.
Hit squads known as ‘sparrows’
The NPA has been waging a guerrilla campaign in the countryside for four decades.
Military estimates placed the NPA strength at more than 5,000 men scattered in more than 60 guerrilla fronts throughout the country.
Capt. Tere Ingente, a local army information officer, said all ground units in the northern part of Mindanao island had been warned and alerted to NPA “liquidation squads,” a small group of communist assassins known to target policemen or troops mostly in urban areas.
Duterte last month said he had hired a group of retired police officers to teach young officers about the tactics of the rebel hit squads, also known as “sparrows.”
A retired police intelligence officer who once hunted NPA “sparrow” units in the 1980s said the present crop of policemen and soldiers were “easy targets for liquidation.”
“The sparrow unit operated by a team of six to know their targets’ movements, routine,” said the former officer, who had survived similar attacks in the past but declined to be named. “Once they know your movements, they will strike.”
“By the looks of these young soldiers, they are not aware that the rebels are already tailing them,” he said.
The NPA sparrow units were notorious in the 1980s, hitting policemen and troops even on urban streets of most cities in the country, including Manila. There was a brief lull after the communist leadership put a halt to their operations, although recent attacks bore the hallmarks of the NPA hitmen.
In 1989, Col. James “Nick” Rowe was shot dead during an ambush by “sparrow” hitmen in Manila, while he was being driven to work at the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Quezon City, officials said.