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Manila Rebels' Tactics Take Violent Turn

June 18, 1989|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — A hastily scrawled sign in the window of a tailor shop across from the gate to Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary, speaks volumes about the current state of internal security here.

"Bulletproof vests for sale," the sign says.

In a three-week period last month, insurgents of the Communist New People's Army assassinated at least seven police officers and soldiers in and around Manila. Only two of the "sparrows," as the urban assassins are known, have been captured.

The surge in activity by the NPA insurgents is viewed by some as a desperate bid by the group to keep its name in the headlines at a time of sinking popularity. Others describe the killings as a shift in strategy, from rural ambushes to an urban campaign aimed at destabilizing the government of President Corazon Aquino.

The most notorious killing so far this year took place April 21, when Col. James N. Rowe, a U.S. Army officer who worked with the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) in Quezon City, was assassinated.

A statement delivered to news agencies by the NPA the following day described Rowe, who had been decorated for service in Vietnam, as a "direct participant in the U.S.-designed 'total war' counterinsurgency program of the Aquino regime." It promised that attacks on U.S. installations and personnel would continue.

As a result of Rowe's death, JUSMAG is pressing ahead with a plan to relocate to a more secure area near the U.S. Embassy in central Manila. The plans was adopted after the killing of three U.S. service personnel outside Clark Air Base in 1987.

Security officials are concerned about the degree of sophistication shown by the insurgents in the Rowe killing and warn that efforts to protect American officials could be more difficult.

The 1987 killings were random shootings outside the base, but Rowe had apparently been carefully observed. His killing was carried out with precision, as he was being driven to his office.

The killers had identified a stretch of road that Rowe would have to use to get to JUSMAG. They knew that his car was armored. They fired high-velocity bullets through the window frame, knowing that he always sat on the left side of the rear seat.

The Rowe killing is believed to have been approved by the entire leadership of the Communist Party and directed by Romulo Kintanar, the NPA chief, who escaped from prison earlier this year. Kintanar is regarded as a hard-line, ruthless adversary by security officials.

Rowe's death came after a period in which the NPA strategy of shooting police officers and soldiers appears to have backfired, causing resentment of the NPA rather than the desired buildup of support.

The insurgency appears to have fallen on hard times in the country at large. Diplomats and security experts said that since Aquino replaced Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986, the Communists have lost their biggest rallying point. In addition, after years of decline, the Philippine economy is roaring ahead--the gross national product rose 6.7% last year--and this has undercut the Communists' ability to exploit economic resentment.

In addition, upheavals in China and the Soviet Union appear to have diminished the impact of classical Marxist propaganda.

"The consensus is that the insurgency problem is gradually diminishing," said Francisco Sumulong, majority floor leader in the House of Representatives.

Nationally, the NPA is believed to have about 25,000 active members spread over at least three provinces. Rafael Ileto, Aquino's national security adviser, said in an interview that NPA strength is thought to have declined by 1,500 in recent months.

"With employment increasing, recruitment to the Communists is definitely decreasing," Ileto said. "They are irritants but not really threats to national security."

Arrayed against the NPA is the Philippine armed forces, composed of 150,000 troops equipped by the United States with weapons that include helicopters and jet fighters.

The government's overwhelming material advantage appears to preclude any significant Communist advances at this stage.

Even the man thought to be the head of the Communist Party, Rodolfo Salas, said in a recent prison interview that he doubted that the party could make good on a forecast made last December that it would take over the government within 10 years.

The main goal of the guerrillas, beyond general destabilization, appears to be to put enough pressure on the Aquino government to force the closure of American military installations. The insurgents even offered to declare a unilateral cease-fire if the government would promise to close the bases by 1991. "The bases are their No. 1 aim," Ileto said. "We will not allow them to win on this issue."

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