Philippine rebels kill 3 soldiers, wound 4 others

Communist rebels killed three soldiers and wounded four others in an ambush in the mountainous northern Philippines, officials said Sunday, despite the recent resumption of peace talks.

About 30 soldiers were carrying hammers, saws and others tools on their way to repair houses damaged by a typhoon when New People's Army rebels assaulted them with heavy gunfire for five minutes at the foothills of a mountain near Asipulo township in Ifugao province on Saturday, the army said.

Reinforcement troops brought by a helicopter later clashed with and wounded an unspecified number of fleeing rebels. The battle scene was inaccessible by vehicles, Ifugao police chief Laurence Mombael said.

"They were on a humanitarian mission," said army Col. Miguel Puyao. "The rebels didn't consider that."

Government and rebel negotiators last week resumed talks in Norway after more than six years and agreed to negotiate a settlement of the 42-year conflict, one of Asia's longest, possibly by June 2012.

The rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility Sunday for a recent attack on a mining firm in southern Bukidnon province that they said was sparked by the company's environmentally destructive practices.

Regional military spokesman Col. Pol Galon said the rebels burned three trucks and two backhoes but did not harm anyone during the Feb. 22 attack. He said it was prompted by the chromite-mining firm's failure to heed the guerrillas' extortion demands.

Battle setbacks have weakened the Maoist rebels, who reached their peak during dictator Ferdinand Marcos's reign in the mid-1980s when their fighters numbered about 25,000. The military, however, still regards the rebels, currently estimated at nearly 4,400 fighters, as the country's most serious security threat after Muslim rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants in the south.

Peace talks stalled in 2004 after the rebels accused then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government of instigating their inclusion in U.S. and European terrorist blacklists.

The rebels have a long list of demands including land and economic reforms and improvement of human rights in the Philippines.