MANILA: Philippine security forces arrested the head of the communist movement’s armed wing following President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to target guerrilla leaders after peace talks collapsed, police and human rights activists said on Thursday.
A police report seen by Reuters said Rafael Baylosis and a companion tried to flee from army and police intelligence agents who were following them but were cornered on Wednesday afternoon in the centre of the capital, Manila.
The arrests of Baylosis, 69, and Roque Guillermo was a product of intelligence and surveillance operations after a tip-off from residents in Quezon City, northeast of Manila, national police spokesman John Bulalacao said.
“Baylosis is believed to be the acting secretary of the New People’s Army,” Bulalacao said, referring to the 3,000-strong guerrilla force that has waged a war in rural areas for nearly 50 years.
The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and stunted growth in poor but resource-rich regions of the Philippines where mines and plantations are located.
Baylosis was the first ranking rebel leader to be captured since the Philippines ended a peace process with communist rebels late last year.
Human rights advocates and leftist activists are expected to protest in front of the national police headquarters on Thursday to condemn the arrests and demand Baylosis’ release because they say he was covered by a state-issued immunity pass.
“The trumped-up charges must stop,” Renato Reyes, secretary-general of activist group Bayan (Nation), said in a statement. “Rather than persecute peace consultants, Duterte should resume peace talks on the most important substantive agenda.”
The rebels’ political arm, the National Democratic Front, described the arrests as “illegal” and a “flagrant violation” of safety guarantees because Baylosis was a peace talk’s consultant.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the safety and immunity guarantees were no longer in effect after Duterte scrapped the peace talks, telling human rights activists to challenge the arrest order in court.
“The authorities are just doing their job. He has a warrant of arrest and our authorities may face dereliction of duties charges if they will not arrest him,” Roque told a news briefing.
Baylosis was among 18 rebel leaders freed on bail in August 2016 and allowed to travel to The Netherlands to take part in peace negotiations. He is facing murder charges after the army discovered the mass grave of 15 suspected government spies in 2006 who were killed in the central Philippines.
Duterte ended intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels in November and declared them “terrorists” because hostilities had continued during the negotiations, ordering security forces to go after guerrilla leaders.