Philippine communist rebels agree to discuss ceasefire

Members and supporters of the New People's Army (NPA) raise clinched fists during a protest at the peace arch near Malacanang Palace in Manila on March 31, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Communist rebels waging one of the world's longest-running insurgencies in the Philippines say they are willing to discuss a formal ceasefire proposed by the government in upcoming talks in the Netherlands.

The insurgency began in 1968 in the poverty-stricken country, and has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives according to the military.

The meeting, starting Sunday (April 2), will be the fourth round of talks between the National Democratic Front and Manila, which have been on and off for 30 years but were restarted by President Rodrigo Duterte after he took office last June.

The government has billed a permanent ceasefire as its primary goal, though a week of negotiations on the outskirts of Rome in January ended without such a deal.

"The (front) believes it is possible at the soonest time to have a bilateral ceasefire agreement," chief rebel negotiator Fidel Agcaoili said in a statement issued from his exile in the Netherlands late on Friday.

He said the rebel negotiating team was "willing to be flexible and is open to discussing with its counterpart what kind of bilateral ceasefire agreement is desired by the (government)".

However, chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello said on Friday he expected the week's talks to be "very difficult and exacting", with no guarantees for a breakthrough.

The National Democratic Front is made up of several groups, the most prominent of which is the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose guerrilla unit is the 4,000-strong New People's Army (NPA).

Duterte, a self-described socialist who once boasted of his links to the communist rebels, has made a peace deal with the movement one of his top priorities.

After taking office he released captured rebel leaders and both sides declared separate temporary ceasefires to pave the way for peace talks, the first round of which Norway hosted and mediated in August.

But the fiery leader was seen to have jeopardised the peace process in February, angrily calling off talks after the guerrillas killed several soldiers and police in a series of attacks.

Norway convinced the two parties to return to the negotiating table following informal talks held in the Dutch city of Utrecht last month.

Bello said Duterte wanted as the first item on the April 2-6 agenda a negotiated ceasefire leading to the "lowering or ending of hostilities".

The two sides said Sunday's meeting, originally scheduled for Oslo, will be held in the Dutch town of Noordwijk, which is close to Utrecht where rebel negotiator Agcaoili and some of the senior leaders of the insurgency live in exile.

As well as a possible ceasefire, both sides are expected to discuss a raft of socio-economic reforms that Bello described as "the heart and soul of the peace process".

These aim to address the roots of the conflict that he said were linked to "social justice, extreme poverty... (and) corruption in the government".

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