Philippine communist rebels said Tuesday they are willing to resume peace talks but that the government must first stop killing left-wing activists and help get the Communist Party removed from terror blacklists.
They also rejected an immediate cease-fire.
The rebels blasted military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon's proposal for the resumption of talks - which hinges on a three-year cease-fire - as "cheap propaganda," saying the plan seeks to crush the rebel movement without addressing the root causes of the 39-year-old conflict.
"He wants only the pacification of the revolutionary movement," Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the communist umbrella National Democratic Front, said in a statement from the Netherlands where he and other communist leaders live in exile.
Esperon recommended Monday that the two sides resume peace talks, which stalled in 2004 after the rebels accused the government of instigating their inclusion on U.S. and European lists of terrorist groups.
Army troops clashed with about 20 communist guerrillas on eastern Catanduanes island Tuesday, leaving three rebels dead and wounding two others. One soldier was slightly wounded in the 45-minute battle, said army Maj. Gen. Arsenio Arugay.
Jalandoni said the rebels are "open to start exploratory talks" aimed at addressing the killings and abductions of left-wing activists, the "unjust terror listing" of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm, the New People's Army, and coming up with a joint statement of principles.
But Jalandoni said that a cease-fire can only be put in place after the preliminary talks, when the two sides have moved on to negotiating fundamental reforms being pushed by the guerrillas.
Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison also said formal talks can only resume if the government first resolves the issue of the extrajudicial killings and the terrorist listing of his party, as well as indemnify victims of human rights violations under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Left-wing and human right groups blame security forces for the killings, saying most of the more than 800 victims since 2001 were members of leftist organizations. A United Nations human rights envoy also singled out military forces.
Esperon denied the accusations and accused the rebels of killing more than 1,300 people in recent years. He said a police task force has found that 14 soldiers were involved in only six cases, and the other killings apparently did not involve the military.
"While we have the mandate to crush the insurgency by 2010 through the force of arms, there is another way of doing it - it is through the force of peace negotiations," he said.
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