By Karl Romano and Froilan Gallardo
Authorities captured the leader of Philippine communist guerrillas in a Manila suburb, officials said Thursday, a signal that President Rodrigo Duterte is determined to crush them instead of resuming peace negotiations aimed at ending Asia’s longest insurgency.
Rafael Baylosis, 69, was arrested with his aide, Guillermo Roque, in Quezon City on Wednesday, police said. A joint team from the police and the military’s intelligence branch captured the two after a brief chase, officials said. Officers seized two handguns, ammunition and cellphones from the suspects, police said.
Baylosis is believed to be the head of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been waging a Maoist-inspired rebellion since 1969.
Both are considered “high-value” prisoners and have been taken to police headquarters in Manila, where a small group of left-leaning activists held a protest rally Thursday demanding their release.
Crackdown on rebel consultants
The pair was captured two weeks after a Philippine court issued arrest warrants for three other senior rebel consultants involved in peace talks with the government.
But so far, Benito Tiamzon and his wife, Wilma, as well as Adelberto Silva have eluded capture.
The Tiamzon couple, who face multiple murder charges, as well as Baylosis, were consultants for the National Democratic Front, the rebels’ political wing, in the peace negotiations, which Duterte cancelled late last year.
The Tiamzon couple were arrested four years ago, but were among dozens of jailed rebels freed by Duterte as part of confidence-building measures when he took office as president in 2016.
Human rights group Karapatan denounced the arrests and called for their release, arguing that Baylosis was sickly and posed no threat.
Karapatan said relatives of Baylosis had sought its help Wednesday night, and the group was able to verify that the two were being kept inside the police headquarters.
‘Flagrant violation’ of agreement
Luis Jalandoni, chief peace negotiator for the communist rebels, said in a statement that the arrest of Baylosis and his aide was a “flagrant violation” of an earlier agreement giving rebel negotiators immunity from arrest.
“President Duterte must be held accountable for this trampling upon a valid peace agreement that assures all consultants and those participating in peace negotiations immunity from surveillance, harassment, search, arrest, detention, prosecution and interrogations or any other similar punitive action,” Jalandoni said.
He said the two men also had the right to medical and legal visits. He called on the public to join them in mounting a “strong campaign” for their freedom.
“President Duterte must not be allowed to kill and destroy the peace negotiations,” Jalandoni said.
But presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who is not related to Guillermo Roque, said immunity guarantees covering both men were no longer valid because the talks had been suspended.
“That no longer applies,” Roque said. “What I am saying is, the president has a right to enforce the law. And, because there are no more peace talks, they are not exempt from the full compliance with our penal laws.”
Duterte ended the peace talks in November, dashing hopes that a political settlement would be reached with the communists, which the military estimates to have an armed strength of about 5,000.
Tens of thousands have been killed in the rebellion that has mired many parts of the countryside in dire poverty. Duterte had accused the rebels of using the peace talks as a cover to stage attacks, including one last year that left a young girl dead.