'AFP sincere in talks, NDF should restrain NPA'

MANILA, Philippines – Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Eduardo Año reiterated the sincerity of the military in supporting the peace talks with communist rebels as his alleged record of human rights violations is raised.

The National Democratic Front (NDF), which represents the rebels in talks with the government, accused soldiers of sabotaging the talks following the death of a New People's Army (NPA) combatant in a clash with the military over the weekend, the first firefight to disrupt a 5-month-old ceasefire declared separately by both sides.

"We are sincere in the peace talks and we will continue to support the peace negotiation until the permanent and long-lasting peace is attained," Año told Rappler on Tuesday, January 24, when asked to comment on the NDF statement.

The NDF said they've been observing similar tactics against the communist rebels and political activists during the Arroyo administration. The statement noted that the same people are at the helm, singling out Año and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (READ: Rebel hunter Año is new AFP chief)

The NDF threatened that the North Cotabato clash could be the "last straw" that will force the revolutionary organization to withdraw its unilateral indefinite ceasefire declaration. 

'Restrain the NPA'

Año called on the NDF to restrain its combatants. 

"We hope that the NDF would restrain and control the NPA to stop committing criminal activities like extortion and arson. The PNP and the AFP will continue to enforce the law and protect the people in the communities," Año said.

The AFP chief claimed the troops did not know they encountered communist rebels until after the firefight, when the NPA itself issued a statement.

"The army responded to the call of PNP (Philippine National Police) to confront a group of lawless armed men who commandeered the truck of SLDC (Santos Land Development Corporation) with the intent to burn it," Año said.

"The 39th Infantry Battalion troopers were not even sure if the perpetrators are NPA until after the encounter and the NDF issued a statement," he added.

It's a claim dismissed by the NDF, which maintained that the military operation in North Cotabato was meant to hunt down the rebels.

Urgent: Bilateral ceasefire

Año echoed government chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III in saying that the incident underscores the urgency of signing a bilateral ceasefire deal that will impose common rules for the military and the NPA to avoid misencounters. 

"This is really unfortunate, but we [ask] the other side to work with us in finding the peaceful solution to this conflict, the first step of which is forging a bilateral ceasefire agreement," Año said.

The government raised hopes the deal would be signed before the panels end their 3rd round of talks in Rome. But Bello acknowledged in an interview on Tuesday, January 24, that both sides now need more time.

"They have some strong positions, but they are open. In fact, they are talking of a possible initialing –  instead of signing – a bilateral ceasefire deal," Bello said in an interview in Rome posted on the Facebook page of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). – Rappler.com