Philippines, communist rebels resume peace talks in Rome

ROME (AP) " Philippine negotiators and communist guerrillas resumed peace talks in Rome on Thursday, with the insurgents warning that alleged government violations of an accord on human rights might prompt them to terminate a monthslong cease-fire.

Philippine officials led by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. and guerrilla leaders shook hands in a show of unity at a hotel in the Italian capital before resuming the negotiations, which both sides acknowledged would be tough.

Special envoy Elisabeth Slattum from Norway, which has been brokering the talks, also attended. The venue was shifted from the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which Philippine officials said would be too cold.

"Although there are still unresolved issues, with regards to commitments to releases of political prisoners, commitments on a bilateral cease-fire which will both be subjects of discussion during this round of talks, we commend the parties for doing exactly that, for working together," Slattum said.

Chief Philippine negotiator Silvestre Bello III said the government panel would seek to turn separate cease-fires declared by President Rodrigo Duterte and the guerrillas in August into a more durable negotiated truce.

But his rebel counterpart, Fidel Agcaoili, was less optimistic, saying "the prospect for forging a bilateral cease-fire agreement has grown dim."

Agcaoili said the guerrillas have raised a number of complaints, including alleged government breaches of a 1998 accord on respecting human rights and another pact on the safety of guerrilla consultants.

Agcaoili said the complaints, including the failure to release nearly 400 detainees the rebels consider political prisoners, made extending a five-month cease-fire "untenable."

The guerrillas also expressed concern over Duterte's brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, which has left thousands of drug suspects dead, and his decision to allow the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a heroes' cemetery in November.

Agcaoili said innocent people have been killed in Duterte's crackdown "due to brutal, reckless and indiscriminate methods employed by the police in its anti-drug operations." He said Duterte should shift his priority to solving the larger problem of poverty through social and economic reforms, which are the main focus of this week's round of talks.

The guerrillas have accused government troops of violating a cease-fire by occupying schools, village halls and other civilian areas and conducting illegal searches, interrogations and surveillance of suspected rebel supporters. The military has denied the allegations.

Founded in 1968, the rebels' Communist Party has held peace talks with six Philippine presidents, including Duterte, whose rise to power in June sparked rebel optimism because of his searing anti-U.S. rhetoric and populist pro-poor stance.

Battle setbacks, surrenders and infighting have weakened the rebel group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. A confidential Philippine government assessment obtained by The Associated Press says the number of guerrillas declined to 3,800 with more than 4,500 firearms in the first half of 2016, with about 700 of the country's 42,000 villages affected by the insurgency.

Sporadic fighting has left about 40,000 combatants and civilians dead since the rural-based insurgency erupted.

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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