A MILITIAMAN being held captive by the New People's Army (NPA) in Davao Region is only 17-year-old, a proof that the Armed Forces "recruits and arms minor as combat pawns" in its anti-insurgency operations, a rebel spokesman said.

Rigoberto P. Sanchez, spokesperson for the NPA's Merardo Arce Command, said in an e-mailed statement Sunday that Juve Latiban, a member of the military-backed Cafgu (Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit), "was not even 16 years old when recruited in October 2008."

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In consideration of his real and factual age, Sanchez said they are not treating Latiban as a prisoner of war (POW).

Sanchez said Labitan will be released if 10th infantry Division chief Major General Carlos Holganza refrains from further putting stumbling blocks to his safe reunion with his family.

The NPA claimed Latiban was recruited to join the Cafgu by his cousin, a certain Private First Class (Pfc.) Alvin Latiban of Barangya Upper Ulip in Monkayo, Compostela Valley.

The young Latiban told his captors he was born on Oct. 7, 1992.

"The cat is finally out of the bag. Now it can be said without any shade of public doubt that in its failed and defeated Operation Plan Bantay Laya II, the 10th Infantry Division-AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) recruits and arms minors as combat pawns in its war against the people and the revolutionary forces," Sanchez said in the statement.

Latiban was snatched at a checkpoint put up by the Conrado Heredia Command-NPA in Sitio Mabatas, Barangay Upper Ulip, in Monkayo on June 19.

During interrogation, Sanchez said the young Cafgu member admitted his batch, which underwent a 45-day training at the then 1001st Infantry Brigade headquarters in Barangay Tuburan in Mawab town, included 18 other minors, who were given fake birth certificates by their recruiter, Pfc. Latiban.

Latiban's bogus birth certificate, according to Sanchez, "showed that he was born in 1990 instead of the factual 1992 so that it would appear that he was already 18 at the time of his training."

"Ceremonies held on Dec. 8, 2008 at the 72nd Infantry Battalion in Nabunturan, Compostela Valley officially admitted them as Cafgus at a time when he (Latiban) barely turned 16 years old," Sanchez added.

Latiban, Sanchez claimed, admitted that their trainers in the Armed Forces knew their actual ages.

Latiban's first assignment was at the Army detachment in Barangay Upper Ulip in Monkayo.

The military has repeatedly accused the NPA of recruiting minors as Red fighters, an accusation denied by the NPA. According to the military, an estimated 2,000 minors recruited as fighters by the NPA and Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

"The AFP black propaganda machine goes out of its way to twist the truth. But the fact stands that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) which wields absolute political leadership over the NPA has long been implementing a no-below 18 national policy in accepting full-time Red fighters mainly from the peasantry," Sanchez said in the same statement.

Also being held as a prisoner-of-war in compliance with the NDFP Unilateral Undertaking to Implement Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions is Staff Sergeant Bienvenido Gentugao Arguelles Jr. of the 25th Infantry Battalion.

"Proper procedures are being undertaken under the auspices of the Conrado Heredia Command-NPA custodial unit to ascertain possible acts of commission that may have violated people's rights and international humanitarian law in the course of Sgt. Arguelles's direct participation in the government's counter-insurgency war," Sanchez said. (Nelson C. Bagaforo)