Communist rebels want peace talks even without a ceasefire

MANILA -- Communist rebels said Monday they want to proceed with peace talks that President Rodrigo Duterte has scrapped, but that reimposing a ceasefire would be difficult if the military keeps on violating the truce.

Duterte lifted on Friday the government's six-month-old ceasefire with the rebels and said Saturday that he was scrapping the talks brokered by Norway. Those moves came after the guerrillas abandoned their own truce and killed six soldiers and kidnapped two others in fresh violence.

The government and the rebels separately declared ceasefires last year to foster peace talks, which had steadily progressed in recent months before rapidly deteriorating in recent weeks.

On Monday, rebel adviser Luis Jalandoni accused the military of violating the government's own ceasefire by deploying troops in about 500 villages across the country, occupying village halls and schools and continuing counterinsurgency operations like surveillance that he said inevitably led to new fighting.

The guerrillas are ready to continue with talks in Norway on February 22 to negotiate a possible joint ceasefire agreement, Jalandoni said, adding that the government has not issued a formal notice required to terminate the talks.

"We're saying the peace talks are still possible in the absence of a cease-fire," Jalandoni told radio dzMM by telephone from Europe.

Duterte called the insurgents terrorists after accusing them of killing some of the six soldiers like pigs and raking them with gunfire. He said several rebel leaders who were temporarily freed to join the peace talks as consultants should return to the country and go back to jail, threatening to have them arrested if they refused.

Jalandoni, however, said the 17 freed rebels are protected by a 1995 agreement under which the government agreed to grant them immunity from arrest while serving as peace talks consultants. All the rebels have returned to the Philippines after joining a recent round of talks in Rome and should not be arrested, he said.

Despite his tough stance, Duterte said Saturday that he may reconsider his decision if there was a compelling reason, but he did not elaborate. His adviser on the peace talks, Jesus Dureza, suggested Sunday that the president's decision may still change.

"At the moment, he has clearly spoken on the directions we all in government should take," Dureza said in a statement. "As I always say, the road to just and lasting peace is not easy to traverse. There are humps and bumps, and curves and detours along the way. What is important is that we all stay the course."

The setback in the talks is the latest reality check for Duterte, whose crackdown on illegal drugs, which has killed thousands of drug suspects since he took office in June, has also hit a dilemma.

Duterte prohibited the 170,000-strong national police and the National Bureau of Investigation, another key law enforcement agency, from enforcing his campaign amid an extortion scandal that was sparked by the killing of a South Korean businessman by police officers involved in the anti-drug fight.

Duterte has said he will enlist the military to support the crackdown, now in the hands of a small anti-narcotics agency. That would put more pressure on government forces, which are carrying out an offensive against Muslim extremist groups in three battlefronts in the south and now have to prepare for a possible resumption of fighting with the communist rebels. (AP)
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