Philippine raid captures communist rebel commander

Philippine troops and police captured a senior communist rebel commander, officials said Wednesday as a 19-day Christmas truce ended this week with both sides vowing to step up fighting.

Tirso Alcantara, the rebel New People's Army commander for the main island of Luzon, was wounded when he tried to draw his gun as special army troops backed by police raided a village south of the capital late Tuesday, said army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz.

Alcantara, also known by his nom de guerre Comrade Bart, is one of the highest-ranking members of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines to be arrested recently, even though the guerrillas and the government earlier agreed to resume stalled peace talks in February on ending the 42-year insurgency.

Military spokesman Col. Generoso Bolina said troops were tipped off that Alcantara was in a house outside Lucena city, but they arrived after he escaped by motorcycle. They chased and caught up with him and his accomplice at a road checkpoint, he said.

Government negotiators have expressed hope that last year's election of reformist President Benigno Aquino III on the promise he would reduce poverty and improve governance would soften the rural-based Marxist insurgency, one of Asia's longest. The holiday cease-fire was the longest truce between the sides in a decade.

In a statement Wednesday, the underground Communist Party demanded the release of Alcantara "before the resumption of formal peace talks," saying he is one of the rebels' consultants in the negotiations.

Alcantara is covered by a joint agreement granting security and safe conduct passes to consultants in the talks, the statement said, adding that his lawyers and doctors should be allowed to visit him.

Alex Padilla, the chief government peace negotiator, acknowledged that the arrest of Alcantara was an issue and concern to the rebels "but it is also clear to both sides that there are no preconditions to the talks."

He also said Alcantara's name was not on the list of rebel consultants submitted to the government.

Padilla said, however, that there are "other ways" to determine if Alcantara was a consultant and the government peace panel would make "appropriate representations" with the courts to allow him to continue participating in the talks if he was.

According to the military, battle setbacks, surrenders, infighting and loss of foreign support have reduced the guerrilla force to less than 5,000 from a peak of 25,000 in the 1980s, during the reign of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

From their jungle camps, the rebels have carried out hit-and-run ambushes. They operate a shadow government in areas under their influence, dispensing justice including trials — and sometimes executions — of erring policemen and village officials. They also collect "revolutionary taxes" — and punish businesses refusing to pay.

The government blames the rebellion for stunting economic development through extortion and attacks. The U.S. and European Union have blacklisted the guerrillas as a terrorist organization, a stumbling block that led to the 2004 breakdown in Norwegian-brokered talks.

Quezon provincial police chief Ericson Velasquez said Alcantara used to be a spokesman for a rebel unit that had successfully hit government troops and seized several soldiers, then was promoted as the head of the Communist Party organ giving political guidance to the NPA.

Alcantara was transferred to a military hospital Wednesday, Ortiz said. He is facing 23 warrants for murder.