February 7, 2017 / 6:46 AM / 3 years ago

Philippines' defense minister says peace talks with rebels possible

MANILA (Reuters) - Peace talks between the Philippine government and communist rebels to end nearly five decades of conflict are still possible even though the president has ordered “all-out war”, the defense minister said on Tuesday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while announcing that he has lifted the unilateral ceasefire with the New People's Army (NPA) during inauguration of the M’lang Solar Powered Irrigation System (MSPIS) in Janiuay town, M'lang, North Cotabato, southern Philippines February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Malacanang Photo/Handout via Reuters

President Rodrigo Duterte announced at the weekend that the government was scrapping a ceasefire with the New People’s Army saying the “terrorist group” was making huge, unacceptable demands despite government concessions.

Clashes have erupted in several places and some top rebels have been arrested but Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said talks were possible.

“The president has not actually closed the door to any negotiation,” Lorenzana told a news conference.

“The government is still open to peace talks if it will benefit the Filipino people.”

Duterte, who won an election last year on a vow to wipe out illegal drugs, had raised hopes of bringing an end to the communist insurgency that has stunted development for years, especially in central parts of the Philippines.

A ceasefire was declared in August and last month, the government asked the U.S. State Department to remove the rebel movement’s Netherlands-based founder and leader, Jose Ma. Sison, from its terrorist blacklist to move negotiations forward.

But both sides later traded accusations of truce violations and negotiating in bad faith.

Lorenzana said orders had been issued for the arrest of guerrilla leaders temporarily freed last year to take part in the peace process.

Soldiers intercepted and re-arrested a senior rebel leader on Monday at an army checkpoint in Davao City.

Duterte said he had “walked the extra mile” to bring peace by resuming talks and freeing rebel leaders but his efforts were never reciprocated by the communists who took advantage of the talks to recruit fighters and extort money.

Despite the president’s fierce rhetoric, leftists in his government praised his political will and urged all parties not to give up on the peace process he had started.

“After almost three decades of impasse, the peace negotiations have made historic strides on many fronts,” said a joint statement from Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, and National Anti-Poverty Commission Secretary Liza Maza.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Alison Williams

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