Philippine security forces capture top Maoist guerrilla leader

MANILA (Reuters) - 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 center 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 a 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 held protests 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 government-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.”

Baylosis was arrested without a warrant, said his lawyer Rachel Pastores, adding that a charge of illegal possession of firearms was also fabricated.

In a statement that contradicted the police account, Pastores said Baylosis was not told of his constitutional rights and was denied access to family and lawyers, and even a phone call.

“No person now is safe from the vicious and vindictive Duterte administration,” she said, likening the arrest to a tactic used by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for 20 years from 1965.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the safety and immunity guarantees no longer applied after Duterte scrapped the peace talks, telling human rights activists to challenge the arrest order in court.

Baylosis was among 18 rebel leaders freed on bail in August 2016 and allowed to travel to the Netherlands for peace talks. He faces murder charges after the army discovered a mass grave of 15 suspected government spies in 2006 who were killed in the central Philippines.

In November, Duterte ended intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels, declaring them “terrorists” because hostilities had continued during the talks, and ordering security forces to hunt guerrilla leaders.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Michael Perry and Paul Tait