Philippine rebels threaten attacks despite talks

Communist rebels threatened more attacks Sunday despite looming peace talks with the Philippine government, as they marked the insurgency's 42nd anniversary by defiantly marching with their weapons in public view.

Aside from targeting government forces, New People's Army guerrillas — one of Asia's most resilient Maoist forces, withstanding decades of military crackdowns — also threatened to step up attacks against mining companies, accusing them of destroying the environment and exploiting workers.

"Despite the peace talks, we will go on with the revolt," regional rebel spokesman Jorge Madlos told journalists in a farming village at the foothills of the Diwata mountain range in Surigao del Sur province, about 530 miles (860 kilometers) southeast of Manila.

The government and the rebels have agreed to resume peace talks after six years in February, and chief government negotiator Alexander Padilla sounded optimistic early this week, citing promises by the new reformist president to address rebel concerns.

Amid a Christmas cease-fire, about 80 young guerrillas marched in public through this rice-growing village, brandishing M16 assault rifles, grenade launchers and other weapons to celebrate the Dec. 26, 1968, founding of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines.

On a makeshift wooden stage festooned with a huge red cloth emblazoned with the hammer and sickle communist symbol, rebels sang nationalist songs and guerrilla speakers revved up the more than 2,000 farmers, villagers and sympathizers. The hilly village is tucked about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from a main road, where army troops stood guard in an outpost and listed the names of villagers streaming in to attend the ceremony.

"It's scary at first but later, you gain confidence when you think that you're fighting for the people," said Johnny Buyo, a 19-year-old who joined the guerrilla movement six months ago.

An M16 rifle slung on his tiny frame, Buyo guarded the rebel ceremony, wearing muddy boots and mingling with other young guerrillas. Nearby, parents, siblings and friends used the occasion to reunite with rebels, who came down from a mountain stronghold, embracing each other and exchanging stories and cell phone numbers. An emotion-gripped mother said she saw her son for the first time after he joined the rebellion 10 years ago.

A new generation of fighters ensures that the revolution will continue, said Madlos, a 62-year-old rebel known for his trademark Mao-style cap and goatee. "I'm happy knowing that with them, the rebellion will go on," he said.

Engendered by the Cold War in the late 1960s, the rural-based insurrection has emerged as this Southeast Asian nation's most serious security menace, stoked by decades of poverty, agrarian unrest, government corruption and misrule. Five presidents have failed to crush the Maoist rebellion, which has killed at least 120,000 combatants and civilians.

The party dates from its split from an older Communist group at a conference Dec. 26, 1968, in northern Pangasinan province. That date also was the 75th birthday of China's Mao Tse-Tung.

Washington has blacklisted the Communist Party and its armed wing, the 5,000-strong New People's Army, as terrorist organizations, blaming them for separate attacks that killed four American military personnel in the 1980s.

The rebels walked away from peace talks brokered by Norway in 2004, suspecting then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government of instigating their inclusion on U.S. and EU terrorist lists.

Since assuming office in June, President Benigno Aquino III has begun tackling pervasive government corruption and human rights violations blamed on state security forces that have helped breed the insurgency.

His promises to tackle poverty and graft could boost upcoming peace talks with rebels and make irrelevant the country's communist insurgency, Padilla told The Associated Press in an interview.

The president, he said, understands the rebels' concerns. His mother, former President Corazon Aquino, led a 1986 "people power" protest that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose martial law declaration in 1972 provided the fodder for the rebel movement as students, farmers and the middle-class swelled its ranks to some 25,000.

After restoring democracy, Corazon Aquino opened talks with the rebels, but they soon broke down. Battle setbacks, factionalism and surrenders have sapped their strength, but they still claim a presence in each of the Philippines' 81 provinces.

The NPA operates a shadow government in areas under its influence, conducting trials — and sometimes executions — of policemen and village officials accused of harming people. The rebels also collect "revolutionary taxes" — and punish business establishments refusing to pay.

Aquino won rare praise from the rebels when he recently ordered the dropping of charges against 43 health workers who claimed they were abused in military custody after being arrested as suspected insurgents 10 months ago.

Padilla said the rebels — faced with the collapse of many communist states that supported and inspired them, and with a popular new national leader seen as addressing social inequities — may soon fade to irrelevance if they persist on waging a protracted war.

He noted that even hardline leftists have been elected into Congress after abandoning their armed struggle.

Madlos said oppressive conditions in the country that have fostered poverty, corruption and rights abuses had remained under Aquino.

Despite sporadic fighting, including the killing of 10 army soldiers in a Dec. 14 rebel ambush, both sides have agreed to resume formal talks Feb. 15-21 in Norway's capital, Oslo. They also agreed to a Christmas truce through Jan. 3.

The military, meanwhile, has softened its counterinsurgency strategy, which has been linked to extrajudicial killings of hundreds of left-wing activists and suspected rebel sympathizers.

The new six-year program unveiled last week seeks to wean away civilian communities from the rebels and includes support of advocacy groups from outside the government in addressing human rights concerns.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said it showed that a part of the 120,000-strong military has agreed to adhere to human rights safeguards.

"It's no longer the body count approach. This is a war for hearts and mind," Casiple said. "The rebels should realize that the ground is shifting."