By Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday he has terminated intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels and would consider them “terrorists” because hostilities had continued during negotiations.
Ending the nearly half-century long conflict with the communists, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed, was among Duterte’s priorities when he took office in June last year.
Duterte said he would consider the political arm of the Maoists a “terrorist group” and was demanding that dozens of rebel leaders he freed last year in order to restart talks turn themselves in.
“I am ordering those I have released temporarily to surrender or face again punitive action,” Duterte in a speech to soldiers.
“Let it not be said that I did not try to reach out to them,” he said.
Duterte on Thursday signed a proclamation ending the peace talks, which started in August last year and were brokered by Norway. Talks have been intermittent since 1986.
“We find it unfortunate that their members have failed to show their sincerity and commitment in pursuing genuine and meaningful peaceful negotiations,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said in a statement late on Thursday.
In May, government negotiators canceled a round of formal talks with the Maoist-led rebels in the Netherlands as the guerrillas stepped up attacks in the countryside.
The rebels had no choice but to intensify guerrilla warfare in rural areas, Jose Maria Sison, chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), said in a statement.
The NDF, the political arm of the Maoist guerrillas, said it regretted the unilateral cancellation of talks on such vital social and economic reforms.
Government troops were advised to stay alert on the movements of the estimated 3,800 leftist guerrillas, said military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla.
Government forces are also battling Islamist fighters in the south of the largely Christian country, some of whom recently occupied a town for several months in the biggest battle in the Philippines since World War Two.
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)