Philippines orders arrests as communist talks close to collapse

Philippines army soldiers store seized combat weapons in bags after a news conference, as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines on July 4, 2017.
Philippines army soldiers store seized combat weapons in bags after a news conference, as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines on July 4, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippine government ordered the arrest on Thursday (July 20) of communist rebel leaders involved in peace talks, the day after a guerrilla ambush left five presidential bodyguards wounded in the latest escalation of a half century-long conflict.

The insurgents have been engaged in off-and-on peace talks with Manila to end one of the world's longest insurgencies, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected last year.

But the government suspended formal peace talks in May and on Thursday, chief government lawyer Jose Calida said guerrilla leaders who were let out of prison to take part in talks were now subject to arrest.

"The Solicitor-General already instructed the... solicitors to ask the courts to cancel the bail bonds of the (rebel) consultants, order their arrests, and recommit them to their detention facilities," Mr Calida's office said in a statement.

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"The conditions (for their release) provide that should the formal peace negotiations cease or fail, their bond shall be deemed automatically cancelled," it added.

Mr Duterte had freed more than a dozen rebel leaders so they could fly to Europe and serve as consultants to their peace-negotiating team, made up mostly of exiled senior communist figures.

The talks were cancelled by the government because of deadly guerrilla attacks on security forces, with the two sides failing to agree to a ceasefire.

After Wednesday's attacks by the communists' 4,000-member armed wing the New People's Army - during which gunmen opened fire on two Presidential Security Group vehicles on the southern island of Mindanao - Manila called off a planned informal meeting, saying the situation on the ground was not conducive for peace talks.

"You can just imagine that if the president wer on board that vehicle, he could have been assassinated," military spokesman Edgard Arevalo told reporters on Thursday.

The rebels said on Thursday that their armed attacks were in response to Mr Duterte's plan to extend his 60-day martial law proclamation to the end of the year for Mindanao, the southern third of the country where the rebellion is concentrated.

Colonel Arevalo said the rebels had killed two off-duty Marines in an ambush in another part of the country this week.

"Clearly, the (rebels) have no intention to genuinely pursue peace negotiations but merely to buy time to consolidate, to recruit and to beef up their ranks," he added.

Mr Duterte had said he needed a longer martial rule to defeat Islamist militants holed up in the city of Marawi, in a near-two-month battle that has left more than 550 people dead.