Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Philippine army clashes with Maoist rebels, 5 dead

MANILA (Reuters) - At least five Philippine soldiers were killed and six were wounded when about 70 Maoist-led rebels attacked an army detachment on the southern island of Mindanao on Wednesday, a military spokesman said.

Colonel Benito de Leon said troops were rushed to reinforce soldiers defending an army patrol base near Cateel town in Davao Oriental province, an agricultural and mining area in the country's southeastern region.

"We've lost five soldiers in the initial skirmishes," de Leon told reporters, adding the communist New People's Army (NPA) rebels also suffered heavy casualties. "Everything is sketchy, so we're sending reinforcements."

The military said rebel activity on the southern Mindanao island has increased after the government announced plans to redouble efforts to wipe out more than 30 rebel bases this year.

On Monday, military chief General Hermogenes Esperon said the army was pouring more troops and resources in three areas where the rebels were known to be very active, including the Davao and Compostela valley regions on Mindanao island.

The army has claimed to have dismantled 13 rebel bases in 2007, reducing the number of communist guerrillas from 7,000 to a little over 5,700 fighters, the lowest-ever level in the nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed 40,000 people.

Esperon said on Wednesday the arrest of a senior rebel cadre, Randall Echaniz, in a farming village on the central island of Negros on Monday was a "major blow" to the communist leadership.

"There's going to be a vacuum in the leadership," he told a news conference. "The rebel movement is now in total disarray and many of their members are getting demoralised and disillusioned."

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