Philippine president declares Christmas truce with rebels

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president has declared a Christmas truce with communist guerrillas and urged them to reciprocate the goodwill gesture after recently scrapping peace talks with the insurgents and declaring them terrorists.

President Rodrigo Duterte's decision, made public by his spokesman Harry Roque Jr. on Wednesday, reflects the contrasting moves the volatile leader has taken to deal with the 48-year communist insurgency, one of Asia's longest. The Department of National Defense had recommended the president not declare a cease-fire.

Roque said in a statement that the Dec. 24-Jan. 2 cease-fire aims to ease public apprehension during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, when many Filipinos travel to the countryside where the Maoist insurgents are active.

Early on Wednesday, Duterte still appeared undecided but was worried about public safety if he did not call for a unilateral truce.

"They might say there's no cease-fire, a gunbattle erupts, then you put a lot of strain on the people," he told reporters after attending the wake of a police officer who was gunned down by a drug suspect this week. "A lot of people are going around, even at night, enjoying Christmas day or whatever, going to church."

The Communist Party of the Philippines on Wednesday called on its armed guerrilla wing, the New People's Army, to launch more offensives but did not indicate whether it would call for a holiday cease-fire. Both sides have traditionally declared cease-fires to allow their combatants to take a break and return to their families during the holidays.

When reporters sought his reaction, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana appeared unaware of the president's declaration but said the defense department and the military would abide by the decision, despite their recommendation against a holiday cease-fire.

The prospects of a peace deal with the guerrillas appeared high when Duterte pursued peace negotiations brokered by Norway and appointed left-wing activists to a number of Cabinet posts when he took power last year. Duterte and military officials, however, later protested continuing rebel assaults on troops, snagging the talks.

Duterte formally halted talks with the Maoist guerrillas in November due to the continuing attacks and declared them as terrorists in the first step of a legal process to proscribe their group.

If approved by a court, the communist guerrillas will be the second group to be proscribed under a seldom-used 2007 anti-terror law after the Abu Sayyaf, a brutal Muslim extremist group that was blacklisted in 2015 for involvement in ransom kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

The guerrillas have scuttled peace talks in the past after accusing the government of helping the United Nations and the United States designate them as terrorists. The rebellion they have waged mostly in the countryside has left more than 40,000 combatants and civilians dead and hampered development in some of the country's poorest regions.

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