Communist rebels were planning to oust Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte by October this year, officials said Thursday, as fighting broke out between troops and guerrillas south of the nation’s capital, leaving four guerrillas dead.
Military officials said troops were patrolling in a remote area in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte province, about 363 km (226 miles) southeast of Manila, when they encountered an undetermined number of New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas.
Four rebels were killed in the fighting, officials said, adding that soldiers also recovered two homemade bombs and several assault rifles. The military suffered no casualties, they said.
The clashes came on the same day that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government should stop negotiating with the rebels after officials uncovered a plot that communist rebels were planning to overthrow Duterte by the end this year.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, the Philippine armed forces spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the military uncovered the communist plot “based on recovered documents.”
“We cannot take chances, it’s a threat not only to the liberties of our people (or) in the life of our president,” Arevalo was quoted by the state-owned Philippine News Agency as saying.
Lorenzana said the government had found out that Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), had laid out a three-year plan to instigate an “oust Duterte movement” even as back-channel negotiations were taking place to jump-start the peace talks.
“In response to your threats we will vigorously pursue our ongoing localized peace process instead,” Lorenzana told reporters in Manila, referring to Sison, who is on self-exile in the Netherlands.
“I am sure that once you are out of the picture, true peace will have a chance to become a reality and you will be consigned to the dustbin of history,” Lorenzana said. He said the military would instead negotiate with Philippine-based rebel factions.
But Sison, in a video conference with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) on Thursday, lambasted the government and the armed forces for “singing a chorus of fantastic lies.”
“Duterte is not an honest man,” Sison said.
The communist rebels, who have been waging one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies, closed the door last week to further peace negotiations with Duterte’s government.
Sison said the insurgent group would instead join moves to oust Duterte, who recently cancelled proposed back-channel negotiations that were scheduled to take place last month.
In a surprise announcement last week, the government said it had cancelled all talks with the CPP for the next three months and was reviewing all earlier peace initiatives with the communists.
This included the possibility of revoking an agreement giving top rebel officials immunity from arrests during negotiations.
Duterte, who describes himself as a leftist and was once a university student of Sison, opened talks with the rebels shortly after he won the presidency in 2016.
As part of confidence-building measures, Duterte freed all jailed top CPP officials to join talks in Europe aimed at ending the communist rebellion. But he subsequently ended the negotiations, angered by the rebels’ continued attacks on government troops in the countryside.
CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, 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 deadliest. Military estimates placed the NPA strength at more than 5,000 scattered in more than 60 guerrilla fronts nationwide.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato City contributed to this report.