Filipino Peace Talks Open In Norway

AP Image Ingested via Automated Feed
NESBRU, Norway (AP) - Peace talks between the Philippine government and Marxist rebels have resumed after a six-year break, with the rebels demanding the "expeditious" release of a communist leader and four other prisoners.

Communist Party leader Allan Jazmines was arrested Monday just hours before a cease-fire went into effect for the duration of the weeklong talks being held outside Oslo.

In his opening statement, rebel negotiator Luis Jalandoni urged the government to release Jazmines and four other imprisoned rebel leaders. However he stopped short of making their release a condition for the talks to get under way.

The negotiations are aimed at ending a four-decade-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of combatants and civilians.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

OSLO, Norway (AP) - The Philippine government and communist rebels are upbeat but cautious as they reopen peace talks Tuesday aimed at ending a four-decade-long insurgency that has killed at least 120,000 combatants and civilians.

A truce has been declared during the weeklong talks outside Oslo, the first formal peace negotiations between the two sides since 2004.

It's the first time since the on-and-off talks opened 25 years ago that the rebels have agreed to a cease-fire while negotiations are being held.

"We are looking forward to the negotiations and expect positive results," rebel negotiator Luis Jalandoni told The Associated Press after arriving in the snow-clad Norwegian capital on Monday.

But later, shortly before the cease-fire took effect, the Philippine military said its forces had captured a senior communist rebel leader.

Army troops and police captured Allan Jazmines at a rebel safehouse in Baliuag town in Bulacan province before nightfall Monday, military chief of staff Gen. Ricardo David Jr. said. He was served warrants for murder and rebellion.

There was no immediate reaction Tuesday morning from government officials and rebel leaders involved in the talks.

Five Philippine presidents have failed to crush the Maoist rebellion, which is one of Asia's longest-running armed conflicts.

The talks, mediated by Norway, are intended to start a series of discussions on economic and political reforms to end the hostilities. Jalandoni said the release of political prisoners will be among the issues being discussed.

Government chief negotiator Alexander Padilla declined to comment on the talks Monday but said in a statement last week that his "most optimistic projection" is that the negotiations can be completed in 18 months and peace achieved in three years if both sides are focused and sincere.

The rebels have demanded that three of the Communist Party's negotiators, who risk arrest at home, be allowed to participate in the discussions. Jalandoni said Monday that two of them were in Norway, while the third would take part in the next round of talks.

Jazmines is a member of the policy-making central committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The military says it will release him if he is among the rebels to be granted temporary immunity by the government due to their involvement in the talks.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, said the negotiations "may be the best hope in years for halting an insurgency that has prevented development in large parts of the Philippines'."

"Despite what many consider its anachronistic ideology, the insurgency has endured," the ICG said. "Many of its criticisms of income inequality, human rights abuses and broader social injustice still resonate with some Filipinos."

The rebels walked away from peace talks brokered by Norway in 2004, suspecting then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government of instigating their inclusion on U.S. and European Union terrorist lists.

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 insurgency, which has survived decades of military crackdown.

In a report released ahead of the talks, the government said the communist guerrillas grew stronger last year after a long period of battle losses, acquiring more fighters and guns and killing more government forces in a spike of attacks.

The confidential government threat assessment report said the guerrillas managed to re-establish six rural strongholds that had been overrun by the military and staged 413 attacks - 11 percent more than in 2009. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press.

The report said government forces killed 35 rebels last year and captured 131 others while more than 150 surrendered.

Norwegian mediator Ture Lundh said he would meet with the top representatives of each side before the negotiations get under way at a hotel south of Oslo.