Philippines Arrests Top Maoist Rebels, Boosting Aquino Peace Bid

The Philippine military yesterday arrested the top two leaders of a 45-year-old Maoist rebel group for crimes including murder, in a move seen to boost President Benigno Aquino’s drive against insurgency.

Benito Tiamzon, chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People’s Army, his wife Wilma Austria, the second-in-command, and five others were arrested in Aloguinsan town in Cebu in central Philippines.

“The arrests will cripple their organization since they are in charge of command and control,” Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman, said by telephone. He didn’t give other details of the arrests.

The National Democratic Front, the Maoist group’s political organization, demanded the immediate release of Tiamzon and Austria in a statement on its website, saying that under an agreement with the government in the 1990s they are immune from arrest during the peace negotiations. The talks between the government and the group, estimated by the military to have as many as 4,000 fighters, have been at an impasse since February 2011 after the rebels pressed for the release of their arrested members before proceeding.

“This is a huge blow that could weaken the organization,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. “They are known hardliners against the peace talks. This will strengthen the hand of those who want to pursue the peace process.”

The rebel group says it has close to 10,000 high-powered firearms, from nine when it was founded in 1969. The Communist Party will celebrate its 45th founding anniversary on March 29.

High Alert

The arrests of Tiamzon and Austria “does not change our basic stance that peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA can only proceed with a clear and time-bound agenda that provides some possibility of bringing us closer to a final peace agreement,” Teresita Deles, Aquino’s peace adviser, said by telephone.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is on high alert, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said today. “Of course, retaliation is expected so the AFP is ready for this.”

Earlier this month, nine government troops were killed when alleged Communist Party fighters attacked a police station at dawn in Matanao, Davao del Sur in the country’s south. Two of the attackers were also killed.

The NPA, in a statement yesterday, claimed to have “thousands” of guerrillas in 71 of the 80 Philippine provinces.

Mindanao Conflict

Separately, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim rebel group whose insurgency is concentrated in the main southern island of Mindanao, will sign a final peace agreement on March 27.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao has killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled the island’s development. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao, unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $300 billion and mark a key achievement for Aquino.

Mindanao can attract as much as $1 billion of investments after a final peace agreement is reached, Trade Undersecretary Adrian Cristobal said in October.

“Peace will be President Aquino’s legacy, and he’s paying close attention” to these developments, Casiple said.

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