Communist guerrillas abducted two army officers and a dozen pro-government militiamen after they attacked a patrol base before dawn Wednesday in the southern Philippines, officials said.
The attack came just days before a Christmas truce unilaterally declared by the rebels was to come into effect. The government has not reciprocated it and said that in light of the new clashes, it was not inclined to do so.
More than 50 heavily armed New People’s Army (NPA) rebels launched the surprise attack on the government’s militia detachment in Sibagat town in southern Agusan del Sur province, according to Army Maj. Gen. Ronnie Villanueva, commander of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division.
“There’s an ongoing pursuit operation to recover the hostages,” Villanueva said, adding that a combined army-police force has been activated and were on the trail of the suspects and their captives.
He said blamed a two NPA units active in the area as behind the attack.
The rebels overran the base, carting away several assault rifles from its armory, according to a police report. Two army officers and 12 militiamen were also taken as hostages, army officials said.
Villanueva said that the hostages were protected under the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which requires the NPA to inform the families of their captives of the status and location of the captured combatants.
Newly assumed Philippine Armed Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal said that most of the captured militiamen and soldiers were in their bunkers sleeping when the attack occurred.
“They did not notice that the rebels were crawling toward their patrol base,” Madrigal told reporters in Manila.
He said this incident bolstered the government argument that it should not declare a Christmas truce. He asked: “Is that their way of showing truce?”
Sandara Amihan, spokeswoman for the rebel’s northeastern Mindanao region, said the captured government forces were being “treated as prisoners of war.” She assured their families they would be treated “humanely.”
“The raid was carried out without a single shot fired. Fourteen soldiers and militiamen have been captured. We will treat them accordingly,” Amihan told a local radio in Cotabato city.
The rebels’ latest attack came hours after President Rodrigo Duterte told a gathering of village officials in the southern city of Davao that the NPA should not be considered as revolutionaries.
“They are all criminals. Do not consider them revolutionary. They are just plain bandits and that is the way we should treat them,” Duterte said in his speech Tuesday night.
“Don’t surrender anymore because if I see you again I will shoot you. No more surrender because you are a cruel and brutal people,” he said. “You do not deserve mercy.”
The incident occurred days while the rebel group was gearing up for a show of force to celebrate its half-century mark on Dec. 26. The NPA earlier declared a five-day unilateral ceasefire for Christmas day and New Year.
On Tuesday, the NPA attacked a police station in Magallanes town in central Sorsogon province, wounding three officers, and prompting security forces to order a heightened state of alert.
"They are planning a big celebration in different parts of the country, especially in areas where they have many members including Bicol, Samar, Negros and Mindanao,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Manila.
In light of the fresh attacks, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that Duterte was not inclined to reciprocate the communists’ truce.
"If you're going to have a truce, you might as well show your sincerity by not doing anything contrary to what your intention is,” he said in Manila.
“The president is always open to end bloodshed in this country. He doesn't want any killing among Filipinos, but for as long as they violate the terms of a peace talk then the President will never allow it to happen,” he said.
The NPA, armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), has been waging a guerrilla campaign in the countryside during the past five decades. Military estimates placed the NPA strength at more than 5,000 men scattered in more than 60 guerrilla fronts throughout the country.
Exiled communist party leader Jose Maria Sison said Duterte, a self-described leftist who was once his student, said the rebel forces were just carrying out tactical offensives ahead of the dates the truce was supposed to take effect.
But he said that Duterte has shown no signs of reciprocating their truce, showing an apparent “disdain” for the ceasefire.
“Every time there is an incident which he wishes to blame on the NPA, he goes ranting to the press instead of letting his negotiating panel submit the complaint to the joint monitoring committees,” Sison said in a statement.
“But worst of all, he calls on his armed minions to go further on killing rampages,” he said.
Karl Romano in Dagupan City, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City contributed to this report.