Rebels kill 2 soldiers in quake-hit Philippine province

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Suspected communist rebels killed two soldiers in an attack Thursday in a northern Philippine province where troops are helping residents recover from a strong earthquake, the military said.

The attack by suspected New People’s Army guerrillas in Malibcong town in Abra province also injured one soldier and left another missing, military officials said. It was unclear whether the missing soldier was seized by the rebels.

The province was hit by a magnitude 6.4 earthquake on Sunday that was felt across a wide swath of the country’s main northern Luzon region. At least 44 people were injured by the quake, which damaged more than 2,000 houses, schools, hospitals and stone churches, and prompted the overnight closure of an international airport, disaster officials said.

While helping the region recover, local officials are also bracing for an approaching storm that may batter Abra and other nearby provinces.

Military officials strongly condemned the rebel assault. The soldiers who came under attack had been ordered to return to camp from counter-insurgency patrols for possible deployment to quake-hit villages, they said.

“This gruesome ambush against our soldiers in disaster-response mode is another proof of their cruelty and inhumanity to our countrymen,” Brig. Gen. Audrey Pasia said in a statement.

Pasia said the military would continue providing help to the quake-shattered region despite the attack.

There was no immediate reaction from the communist guerrillas.

The military also reported a separate clash that killed two of at least seven communist guerrillas on Wednesday in the eastern province of Camarines Sur.

Five of the rebels managed to escape in the hinterlands near Garchitorena town where troops recovered the bodies of two slain insurgents along with three rifles, two pistols, two anti-personnel mines, various types of ammunition and other rebel belongings, regional army spokesman Maj. John Paul Belleza said.

In southern Davao city, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. led a ceremony in which he repeated an earlier declaration by local officials that the large port city and five outlying provinces, which comprise a region that used to be a rebel hotbed, were now “insurgency-free.”

“It is a victory which proves there is no place for extremism and senseless violence anywhere in the Philippines,” Marcos Jr. said.

“I believe that there is no better way to commemorate the eradication of insurgency in Davao than to declare the region as a tourism and investment-ready destination,” he said.

The Davao region, one of the most economically vibrant in the country’s south, was deeply battered by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns.

The Maoist rebel force was established in 1969 with only about 60 armed fighters in the country’s northern region but gradually expanded across the country and became one of Asia’s longest-running communist insurgencies.

The guerrillas remain a key national security threat despite battle setbacks, surrenders and infighting. The rebellion has left about 40,000 combatants and civilians dead and stunted economic development in remote regions where the military says a few thousand insurgents are still active.

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