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Philippines eyes truce with communist rebels amid siege

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    Philippine government troops prepare to head to the frontline against Muslim militants in Marawi city.

MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine government said today that it would suspend offensives against communist guerrillas to reciprocate a similar plan by the insurgents and allow troops to focus on quelling a bloody siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants that has dragged on for nearly a month in a southern city.

Philippine negotiator Silvestre Bello III said the government move aims to foster talks for a cease-fire accord and a peace pact with New People’s Army rebels. Troops have been battling communist and Muslim militants simultaneously in the country’s south.

“The Philippine government hereby correspondingly reciprocates with the same declaration of not undertaking offensive operations against the New People’s Army,” Bello said in a statement, without specifying when such a suspension of government offensives would take effect and under what terms.

Despite the peace overtures, Philippine troops killed five communist rebels in separate clashes in the south while the guerrillas stormed a police station in a central town and seized a dozen assault rifles and pistols over the weekend, officials said.

Three communist guerrillas were killed in Davao Oriental province and two others died in Compostela Valley in separate clashes with army troops Saturday, military officials said.

In the central town of Maasin in Iloilo province, about 50 communist rebels stormed a police station and seized 12 rifles and pistols, two-way radios, laptop computers, jewelry and a patrol car, said police Chief Superintendent Cesar Hawthorne Binag, who condemned the attack. Criminal complaints will be filed against the attackers, he said.

The rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that they waged the assault to punish Maasin policemen for their alleged involvement in extortion and for failing to stop the spread of illegal drugs and gambling.

While President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued talks with the communist rebels, who have been waging one of Asia’s longest-running Marxist insurgencies, he has expressed outrage over continuing guerrilla attacks. The rebels have also protested what they said were continuing military assaults on their rural strongholds.

The accusations and other differences have hampered negotiations being brokered by Norway, causing a scheduled round of talks to be canceled last month.

The latest flaring of fighting involving the communist insurgents erupted as thousands of troops and police struggled to end a 27-day siege by Muslim militants aligned with the Islamic State group in southern Marawi city. Duterte has declared martial law in the south to deal with the most daring attack yet by IS-linked militants that has alarmed governments in Southeast Asia.

The intense fighting, now confined in four of Marawi’s 96 villages, has left 242 militants, 56 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians dead and turned the heartland of the mosque-dotted Islamic city into a smoldering battlefield. Military aircraft bombard militant positions with rockets and bombs in daily airstrikes.

More than 300,000 villagers of Marawi and outlying towns have been displaced and hundreds remained trapped in the Marawi fighting. The U.S. military has deployed a spy plane and drones to help troops end the insurrection, which was started by an estimated 500 IS-linked militants, including foreign fighters.

More than 100 militants holding an unspecified number of civilian hostages continue to fight troops but their resistance has considerably weakened after daily battle setbacks, the military says.

A fresh army battalion of about 400 soldiers was airlifted from Iloilo province to Marawi on Saturday to replace the wounded and help prevent the remaining gunmen from escaping as street-to-street fighting turned fiercer, military officials said.

The larger numbers of rebel deaths and seized firearms in recent days “show that we are nearing the conclusion,” military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo told reporters, adding that it remained difficult to say when the siege would be completely crushed.

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