Hundreds of jailed Philippine communist rebels likely to be granted amnesty

Activists and supporters of communist rebel leaders Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma (not pictured) hold a rally outside the gates of the police headquarters in Manila on August 19, 2016.
Activists and supporters of communist rebel leaders Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma (not pictured) hold a rally outside the gates of the police headquarters in Manila on August 19, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Hundreds of detained communist rebels in the Philippines are likely to be granted amnesty, officials said on Monday (Oct 10), after fresh talks aimed at ending one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies.

Government negotiators said in a statement they had submitted a proposal to President Rodrigo Duterte to free 434 communists accused of a range of crimes including murder, kidnapping and arson.

"The (peace) panel has a commitment that there will be releases. We will fast-track that," chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello told reporters in Norway at the end of three days of talks with the rebels.

Mr Duterte, who took office on June 30, quickly launched peace talks with the communists, saying it was his "dream" to end their rebellion that has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives since 1968.

To kick-start the talks, Mr Duterte released 18 of their top leaders and pledged to grant amnesty for other rebels whom the communists insist were jailed on trumped-up charges.

More than 100 of the rebels slated for amnesty have been in jail for over a decade, according to the communists.

The latest statements from Mr Bello and other government negotiators following the second round of official talks in Norway show the amnesty process is on track.

Nevertheless, Mr Duterte's peace envoy Jesus Dureza told Agence France-Presse via text message from Norway the amnesty was not yet finalised, highlighting the fact that it also needed congressional approval.

The two sides have said they expect to reach a final peace agreement by the middle of next year.

The communists' armed faction, the New People's Army, is believed to have fewer than 4,000 gunmen, down from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s, when a bloodless revolt ended the 20-year dictatorship of late president Ferdinand Marcos.

But they remain active in rural areas, where they are notorious for extorting money from local businesses.

They have also in recent years carried out deadly attacks on police and military forces.

Both sides agreed to a ceasefire at the first round of Norway talks in August.

Mr Duterte is the first president to hail from the restive southern region that is home to Muslim rebels as well as communists. He is also pursuing peace talks with the Muslim rebels.

Mr Duterte has been routinely visiting military camps to seek support for the peace processes, acknowledging many soldiers had been lost in decades of fighting.

"I know you feel bad, but I am not a war-time president," he told troops on Friday (Oct 7).

The next round of peace talks is scheduled for January.