At least six people were killed Thursday as security forces launched a massive drive against alleged supporters of communist guerrillas in the central Philippines, police said.
Police officers, backed by the army, were serving arrest warrants in the towns of Guihulgan and Mabinay in Negros Oriental province, but the suspects fought back, leading to gunbattles, officials said.
“We followed the process in the implementation of search warrants and service of arrest warrants, but they resisted arrest,” Senior Superintendent Raul Tacaca, provincial police chief, told reporters.
But Karapatan, a human rights NGO, claimed that the slain men were civilians, not rebels. A local unit of the communist guerrilla group New People’s Army (NPA) also said the dead were not among its members.
The violence took place a day after the 50th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) on Wednesday. The CPP is the mother unit of the NPA, which has been waging one of Asia’s longest-running rebellions.
Karapatan said police served 82 search warrants and arrested the captains of three villages – Kasingan, Banwage and Tacpao – and also a couple whose son was among the five fatalities.
Tacaca earlier told reporters there was also another fatality in Sta. Catalina town.
Military spokesmen were not immediately available to comment.
The alleged firefight came a day after suspected NPA rebels set off a homemade bomb in the southern province of Compostela Valley, wounding 11 soldiers.
Combined troops under 10th Division Reconnaissance Company and the 25th Infantry Battalion were conducting patrol operations in the village of Tinago in the town of Monkayo after officials received intelligence reports that the rebels were planning to mount attacks to mark their anniversary.
“Civilians told our men on the ground they were conducting recruitment in the area and forcing civilians to attend the rebel group’s anniversary,” local army spokesman Capt. Jerry Lamosao said. “We dispatched a team and they [the rebels] detonated an improvised bomb.”
He said troops were on heightened alert because guerrillas attacked troops elsewhere in the south on Christmas Day, although there were no reported casualties on either side.
The incidents occurred while the NPA was celebrating its half-century. The NPA earlier declared a five-day unilateral cease-fire for Christmas Day and New Year.
President Rodrigo Duterte had ruled out declaring a traditional cease-fire with the insurgents this year, and three days prior had ordered the military to instead destroy the rebel infrastructure.
“We do not subscribe to their ceasefire. We are ready for anything and I said change your paradigm. Do not fight them. Destroy them. Destroy them. Kill them,” Duterte said during his visit at the military camp of 10th Infantry Division in Compostela Valley’s Mawab town.
"Law and order means you have to destroy, not really fight, but destroy the Communist Party of the Philippines, including its legal fronts and infrastructure," Duterte said.
But Sandra Sidlakan, a spokeswoman for the NPA’s Guerrilla Fronts 21 and 30 in the south, belittled Duterte’s directive as mere posturing.
“This enabled us to still commemorate our 50 years, as well as share to our comrades our achievements and milestones throughout the campaign, further strengthening the morale in our ranks,” Sidlakan said in statement.
In his anniversary message, exiled communist party leader Jose Maria Sison said Filipinos had the right to overthrow Duterte, whom he alleged has become increasingly tyrannical.
"Duterte is the abominable No. 1 violator of human rights and is the precise target of the Filipino people’s exercise of their sovereign right to free themselves from tyranny and to undertake all necessary actions to oust him from his position," Sison said from the Netherlands.
"He has brazenly used his armed minions to commit mass murders and other human rights violations," Sison said. ‘He has arrogantly pushed his scheme of fascist dictatorship.”
The NPA 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.