By Sara Gómez Armas
Manila, Mar 13 (efe-epa).- The New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla group in the Philippines took a severe blow Friday after its leader Julius Soriano Giron was killed in a shootout.
The military chief of the oldest and deadliest communist insurgent group in Asia was killed in a joint operation by the Philippines Armed Forces and National Police in Baguio, some 260 kilometers north of Manila, military sources said.
“The death of Giron will further rattle the communist terror group and its dwindling force for losing its strategic leader. Giron is much closer and more relevant in NPA operations than the absentee (exiled leader) Jose Maria Sison, and is thus more influential to their ranks,” said AFP Chief of Staff General Felimon Santos Jr.
Giron was the head of the military council for the outlawed Communist Party in the Philippines and, since 2014, president of the NPA, the armed wing of the political foundation.
Santos Jr. lauded the “neutralization” of the NPA leader, saying it was a blow to the organization which he hoped would help bring an end to a conflict that has killed 43,000 people.
Sison, the founder of the Communist Party and the guerilla group in the country, has spent five decades in exile in the Netherlands.
Giron had an arrest warrant out for him for charges of premeditated arson, attempted murder and rebellion.
Military intel traced Giron to a house in the city of Baguio. The guerilla leader resisted arrest and was killed – along with two others – in a shootout that ensued.
One of the other bodies was identified as Lourdes Tan Torres, a member of the Communist Party’s executive committee.
Although President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to revive peace talks when he came to power in 2016, talks in Oslo have collapsed at least three times, most recently in March, when the president severed negotiations.
Military operations against the group intensified through 2018-19 as Duterte called on the military to “annihilate” the enemy before his mandate came to an end. He also proscribed the NPA as a terror group, following in the footsteps of the United States and the European Union.
But Duterte opened the door to negotiations once more last December and sent a team headed by presidential advisor Salvador Bello to Utrecht to meet with Sison.
Duterte had warned that it would be the last opportunity to restart talks.
The Philippines president had also offered to meet with Sison face to face, although that encounter has yet to take place.
Sources close to the negotiations told Efe that channels of dialogue were still open between the government and the guerilla group.
The NPA was born on 29 March 1969, just months after Sison founded the clandestine Communist Party. It was organized to fight the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86) with just 60 men and 34 rifles.
It’s membership rose to 26,000 by the 1980s.
Currently the ranks of the NPA, which mainly recruits from impoverished and rural communities, total roughly 3,900 militants although military sources told Efe that the organization also relies on some 47,000 armed civilians.
The Communist Party claimed to have 70,000 backers across the country, despite never enjoying legal status in the democratic era.