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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Philippines takes fight to communist heartland

LILIW, Philippines, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Philippine soldiers armed with shovels, hammers and paint brushes have poured into farming villages south of Manila in a kinder, gentler part of a fresh offensive against a nearly 40-year communist insurgency.

Army engineers were repairing schools, building dirt roads and digging wells in at least 10 villages in Laguna and Batangas provinces under the government's "Kalayaan Barangay" (Liberated Village) project.

"We really have to begin implementing development projects in the conflict areas," Jesus Dureza, the president's adviser on the peace process, told Reuters.

"Our people were already tired of violence. They could no longer wait for the peace talks to bear fruit."

He said the government will spend 300 million pesos ($5.9 million) to build classrooms, clinics and potable water systems, as well as bring electricity to about 60 villages across the country known as strongholds of the New People's Army (NPA).

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had asked Congress to allocate about 3 billion pesos for projects in at least 600 villages to reduce the poverty and neglect that have fanned the communist rebellion.

Philippine security forces, also facing four Muslim rebel groups, have been fighting the NPA since 1969 in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people and stunted growth in the developing Southeast Asian country.

Peace talks with the communists, brokered by Norway, stalled in 2004 when Manila refused to help persuade Washington and some European states to remove the NPA from terrorism blacklists.

Arroyo's political foes, who dominate the upper house of Congress, blocked the government's 2006 budget, along with funds for the "Kalayaan Barangay" programme, due to suspicions the money would be used for congressional elections in 2007.

Dureza said the rural development projects were the softer part of the all-out war that Arroyo has declared to defeat the communist rebels in the next two years.

The government, he said, was also considering an amnesty programme to help rebels turn over a new leaf by exchanging weapons for farm equipment and other materials.
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