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Behind the Story : Philippine Rebels Down but Not Out : Despite government claims, the war to create a Maoist state is far from over.


BAGUIO, Philippines — President Corazon Aquino took understandable pride in telling the graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy here last month that her government had "broken the back" of one of the world's last Communist insurgencies.

"Soon," the outgoing president promised, the rebels would be only "an occasional nuisance to public order and safety."

Not yet, however. Apparently unknown to Aquino, well-armed guerrillas of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, had the day before made their own statement in Surigao del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao.

In a deadly cross-fire, well-hidden NPA troops armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers and mortars ambushed two companies of soldiers from the army's 23rd Infantry Battalion as they walked down a lonely mountain road. The government death toll from the five-hour firefight was the worst in nearly a decade: 42 soldiers dead, 16 wounded and five captured. The NPA admitted to six dead.

As the outraged military poured up to 2,000 troops into the area, gruesome details emerged. From his hospital bed, a wounded sergeant told reporters that the attackers--including boys as young as 12, he and others insisted--had executed wounded officers, beheaded and mutilated bodies, and looted weapons, clothes and valuables. There was no independent confirmation, and the NPA issued statements denying the "so-called atrocities."

In any case, the Surigao slaughter, and scattered clashes elsewhere in recent weeks, have raised obvious doubts about the Aquino administration's claim that it has nearly beaten the 23-year-old insurgency, and will achieve the long-promised goal of "strategic control" of 80% of the countryside by year's end.

Evidence strongly suggests that the NPA has lost ground, fighters and public support in the last three years--signs of progress in a low-intensity, counterinsurgency conflict. Publicity about bloody internal purges and power struggles that left scores dead, followed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, clearly have undercut the insurgents' popular appeal and ideological fervor.

Partially as a result, more than 125 provincial and central NPA commanders have been arrested, and detailed computer discs, documents and other intelligence materials have been seized. Last week, for example, the army announced the capture in a Manila suburb of Ricardo Capili Reyes, reputed No. 3 in the rebel hierarchy and acting secretary general of the Communist Party.

"Unlike before, when they were the hunters, now they are the hunted," said Brig. Gen. Emiliano Templo, deputy chief of civil and military operations. "They are on the run."

But analysts warn that the war to create a Maoist state is far from over. According to current military estimates, the NPA still fields 15,450 armed guerrillas. That's down from an estimated high of 25,800 in 1988, but hardly a spent force. There's no way to confirm the figures.

Some analysts fear the breakdown of the NPA command structure may lead to more urban terrorism, such as the kidnaping for ransom of California oil executive Michael Barnes in Manila on Jan. 17. Another NPA command has held Arvey D. Drown, a Colorado businessman, since October, 1990, in northern Luzon and demands a military withdrawal from the war zone in exchange for his release. The announced pullout of the last American forces in the Philippines by the end of this year, long an NPA demand, appears to have had little impact on their military campaign.

"To break the back means to cause the disintegration of the NPA," said Francisco Nemenzo, an expert on the insurgency and chancellor of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas. "It hasn't reached that point. . . . They've suffered a lot of setbacks, and they're quarreling among themselves. They're not in position to seize power in the near future."

"At the same time, you cannot say it will disappear," Nemenzo added. "As long as there is exploitation, abuses by the military, human rights abuses and social grievances, they will not go away. The NPA will always be around."

A Western military attache in Manila agreed. "I think the overall trend has been positive," he said. "The NPA has seen its influence wane. They're on the defensive, both politically and militarily. But the insurgency is pretty hardy here. It's not rolling over and disappearing."

For now, the NPA strongholds remain in northern Luzon, the island of Samar, parts of Panay and Negros, and northeastern Mindanao. Commands are often fractured, and in some areas, units have taken to banditry and extortion in the guise of revolution.

But the military is often little better. An NPA procurement officer, captured early last month, said that the Mindanao rebels in the Surigao slaughter had bought their weapons, ammunition, gasoline, boots and other combat gear from corrupt soldiers.

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