Death toll in AFP-NPA clashes rises to 26 amid botched peace talks

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — As the rest of the world celebrated the month of love in February, soldiers and communist rebels engaged in bloody skirmishes across the country.

At least 26 were killed in clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the New People's Army (NPA), just a month after the rebels announced on February 1 an end to their unilateral ceasefire.

There were 13 deaths from the rebels, 10 soldiers, and three civilians, according to CNN Philippines Research, in its own monitoring of rebel attacks and heightened military operations.

The death toll, which was at eight on February 10, almost tripled since February 11 - the day the rebels "completely terminated" their truce and promised to launch offensives against government troops.

The NPA in a statement admitted to conducting 30 attacks from February 1 to 10 alone. But these were only meant "to defend the rights and welfare of the people primarily against AFP troops occupying barangays and conducting strike operations," the rebels said.

The government has declared an "all-out war" against armed communist rebels after President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncement that he now considers the country's biggest communist organization as a terrorist group. He was referring to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) along with its armed wing, the NPA, and political arm of the National Democratic Front (NDF).

Killed in armed conflict

Bloody combats and alleged rebel attacks have been reported by the military almost daily.

The Armed Forces said the NPA killed three soldiers in Bukidnon on February 1, despite declaring on that same day that their unilateral ceasefire still holds until February 10.

Also read: PH Army: NPA rebels kill, abduct soldiers despite ceasefire

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said this was the "last straw" that led to Duterte's withdrawal from the peace talks on February 4.

Suspected NPA rebels killed the platoon leader of the 67th Infantry Battalion in Manay, Davao Oriental, also on February 1, the military said.

While the actual number of casualties on the rebel side is unknown, the first death was reported on February 5, when an alleged rebel was killed in a firefight in Sta. Cruz, Occidental Mindoro.

The next day, authorities said an NPA supply officer, identified as Glenn Ramos, was killed in a shootout in Davao City as the police served his arrest warrant over attempted homicide. The CPP condemned the attack and said the military wrongly accused Ramos of being an NPA member who resisted arrest.

Meanwhile, a corporal died when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off as the troops encountered rebels in Tapaz, Capiz on February 7. Two other soldiers were wounded.

And civilians were not spared.

Lito Siagan Atoy was abducted then killed by NPA rebels in Talakag, Bukidnon on February 9, according to a military report.

On the same day, the rebels also captured a policeman and one other civilian, and burned heavy equipment owned by the Mindanao Rock Corporation, the military said.

Early Saturday morning on February 11, a soldier was killed in a clash in Santiago, Agusan del Norte which also claimed the lives of two civilians. Three other soldiers were wounded.

Four NPA rebels were killed in a firefight in Aroroy, Masbate on February 13.

Three consecutive encounters in Davao City on February 16 also resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and one rebel, while one rebel was killed in the municipality of Lakewood in Zamboanga del Sur on February 18. On February 21, another soldier was killed in Magpet, North Cotabato.

Two rebels were killed in Maayon, Capiz on February 24, two more died in an encounter in Davao del Norte on February 26, and one in Lian, Batangas the following day.

The latest fatality is a private first class who died in a clash with rebels in Sugbongcogon, Misamis Oriental on February 28.

While 25 other soldiers have been wounded from fighting the NPA, the actual number of casualties on the rebel side is unknown.

At least four government troops have been held captive by rebels since February 1, the military said.

The government is urging communist rebels to turn themselves in.

At least 65 have surrendered to authorities as of February 28, and a total of 17 have been arrested.

NOTE: This is CNN Philippines' own monitoring of rebel attacks and heightened military operations against the New People's Army. The Armed Forces said eight soldiers, 16 rebels, and four civilians were killed from February 4 to 28.

CPP: Defeating the NPA a Duterte pipedream

In an earlier statement, the CPP said Duterte's bid to end their insurgency will fail, and advised him to rethink his decision to terminate the talks.

"Defeating the NPA is a Duterte pipedream. Other regimes before him have tried and failed," the CPP said.

Duterte should not have gone as far as ending the talks despite the resumption of armed conflict, CPP founder and now NDF chief political consultant Joma Sison said in a statement.

The NDF represents rebels in the peace talks.

Sison asked Duterte, his former student at the Lyceum of the Philippines University, "to consult thoroughly with his negotiating panel and the peace advocates in his own cabinet and others outside of his government, and encourage and allow back-channeling efforts to clarify misunderstandings and solve immediately the current problems."

The CPP condemned government's "all-out war" against the NPA. They said it mirrors Duterte's war on drugs, which the police and military say have claimed the lives of 2,500 drug offenders.

"The people's army, the NPA, will be at the people's side to punish the AFP's fascist troops at every available opportunity," the CPP added.

Also read: CPP hits Duterte for 'arbitrarily terminating' peace talks

Botched peace talks

The Duterte government is the sixth administration to talk with the NDF in a bid to end the communist movement's armed struggle.

NPA rebels and government forces have figured in violent clashes for decades, including the 1987 "Mendiola Massacre," which killed 13 farmers after a bloody dispersal. This prompted the NDF to walk away from the talks under then President Corazon Aquino.

Negotiations went on and off in the succeeding administrations.

Duterte, a self-described left-leaning leader, brought renewed hope to a possible peace deal as he reached out to the rebels even before assuming presidency, launching an optimistic starts to the peace talks.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella on February 11 said Duterte may still reconsider his decision to bow out of the negotiations, but he said the rebels should show sincerity to the peace talks. This was followed by Duterte's meeting with leftist Cabinet members on the botched peace talks.

Meanwhile, Sison said the Norwegian government, which has been serving as third-party facilitator in the peace talks since the 1990s, deserves to be briefed by the government and communist peace panels on the possible continuance of peace talks.

The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila in a statement sent to CNN Philippines said it is "in close dialogue with both parties. We know from experience that all peace processes are going through challenging phases."

The fourth round of peace talks under the Duterte administration was supposed to resume in Oslo, Norway on April 2-6.

TIMELINE: Peace talks between the government and communist rebels

CNN Philippines' Ella Hermonio contributed to this report.