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Communist War Rages Since Philippine Coup Attempt

September 13, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — There was little more room for the dead this weekend at Manila's Camp Crame, headquarters of the nation's military combat police.

All of the chapels contained coffins. Meeting rooms were converted into makeshift funeral parlors, and most of the traffic through the camp's gates Friday and Saturday night were mourners--relatives, former classmates and friends who came to pay their last respects to soldiers killed in a nationwide offensive by Communist guerrillas.

The offensive has been raging in Philippine cities and rural provinces for the past two weeks, but few outside the armed forces were aware of either the extent of the casualties or the funeral scene at Camp Crame.

News cameras and public attention were focused instead on President Corazon Aquino as she struggled to reorganize her government, on reports about the fugitive remnants of a rebel military group that tried to overthrow Aquino on Aug. 28, and on Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the armed forces chief, as he tried yet again to unify the deeply divided military.

The Communist offensive has left more than 100 dead in the two weeks since Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan led the failed coup, and the funerals at Camp Crame for some of these troops attested to the threat of a Communist insurgent force that is well aware of an ancient military tactic: attack when your enemy is weak.

During these two weeks, the Communist New People's Army has killed and wounded soldiers and policemen in cities and villages nationwide. They have killed one national congressman and several local mayors and burned their homes. They have ambushed military convoys, using sophisticated land mines. And for the first time, they have blown up strategic bridges, paralyzing transport and cutting off several provinces from Manila.

Government forces, needing ammunition and equipment as well as being internally divided, have reportedly suffered far more casualties than they have inflicted.

The Communists confirmed their offensive last week in the party organ, Ang Bayan (Our Country), which announced an "all-sides" military strategy "not only against military targets but also against such counterrevolutionary infrastructures as communication facilities, economic activities of enemy die-hards and other such projects and agencies of the puppet regime."

The aim, Ang Bayan stated, was to "take advantage of the disarray within the ranks of the reactionary forces of the enemy."

The result of that aim filled the more than a dozen open coffins at Camp Crame, one of them that of Lt. Melvin Rivera, 27. Rivera, an intelligence officer assigned to an elite agency called the Constabulary Security Group, had prepared a secret report on Communist plans to intensify assassinations and terrorist attacks in Manila.

The report, submitted last Monday, detailed how urban guerrilla bands, known as "sparrow units" because they strike fast and flee, were plotting executions of police and military men and right-wing officials to demonstrate that Aquino and her armed forces can no longer control the nation.

On Tuesday night, as Rivera drove through the gate of the University of Santo Thomas where he studied law at night, three armed men approached and shot him dead.

A nearby street-corner peanut vendor heard one of the men say as they moved in for the kill: "There he is. OK. Let's get him now."

On Friday night, a wide spectrum of friends filed past Rivera's open coffin at Camp Crame, among them former street activists who went underground to fight against former President Ferdinand E. Marcos and who now side with Aquino's military in its fight against communism.

One of them, who asked not to be named because he feared that he, too, may be killed by guerrillas, told a reporter that Rivera's death should serve as a warning to Honasan and the mutinous troops who escaped with him, all of them still in hiding.

"Gringo and his boys have said many times that they are doing this because they want to wipe out the Communists and the Aquino government is preventing them," the activist said. "But all they've really done is create chaos within the armed forces, which is now only helping the Communists."

Ramos, the armed forces chief, said the same thing two days after Honasan's failed uprising.

"Aside from causing death and injury to hundreds of Filipinos, Honasan has unwittingly given aid and comfort to the Communist terrorists, who even now have openly called for an intensification of their attacks," Ramos said.

A wreath from Ramos stood behind Lt. Rivera's coffin, delivered personally by the military commander when he visited the lieutenant's wake.

On Friday night, Ramos attended another wake in Camp Crame's main church, a few hundred yards from where Rivera's body lay.

The rite honored the memory of a general killed last week--not by the enemy but by a failure in the the armed forces' own equipment.

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