Communist guerrillas battling the government of President Ferdinand Marcos are escalating their "people's war" in the Philippine countryside as a crucial presidential election approaches, according to the military and rebel supporters in the capital.
With Marcos and his moderate political opposition embroiled in a campaign before Friday's voting, guerrillas of the New People's Army have launched a series of nearly simultaneous attacks in widely scattered areas of the archipelago, from northern Luzon to the southern island of Mindanao.
During the past two weeks, at least 60 persons have been killed in clashes between rebels and government forces, according to military figures released today.
According to three rebel supporters interviewed in Manila, guerrilla plans to escalate raids on government forces do not include disruption of actual voting. They also denied assertions by Marcos that the rebels were supporting opposition candidate Corazon Aquino.
The unusual degree of coordination of the attacks is seen as a sign of strength in the insurgency being waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People's Army.
"We want to tell people that armed struggle and not elections is the means to topple the regime," said a rebel supporter in Manila. "It's a way of saying, 'Don't forget about us, we're around,' and to make people aware there's a revolution going on," he said.
In Manila, the Commission on Elections, the governmental body charged with overseeing Philippine elections, responded today to the perceived security threat by deputizing the entire armed forces for peace-keeping duties during the election. This raised concern among the citizens' poll-watching group known as Namfrel that the move could unleash regional military commands loyal to the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, a trusted aide of Marcos.
According to two members of the secretariat of the National Democratic Front, an outlawed organization controlled by the Communist Party, the current attacks are part of a plan to "step up the offensive after the election." The plan, they said, is based on their view that Marcos will defeat Aquino through massive fraud and that armed struggle will then gain more supporters.
According to the military, at least 48 persons were killed and eight others wounded in insurgency-related clashes during the 12 days ending Feb. 1. The military said the dead included 24 government troops, 17 guerrillas and 7 civilians. Another 47 guerrillas were reported captured, and 22 surrendered, the military said. No independent confirmation was available.
The incidents were reported from 18 provinces in various parts of the country. Among them was a clash near Malolos, 27 miles north of Manila, in which Philippine Constabulary troops were said to have attacked a rebel hideout, killing one guerrilla and capturing 35 others. The military also reported that about 250 rebels attacked an Army unit Friday in the central Philippine province of northern Samar, killing six soldiers.
In addition, the military reported, 11 Army soldiers and a civilian woman were killed Sunday morning in Negros Occidental Province when about 50 suspected Communist rebels opened fire on the victims' vehicle from foxholes.
According to another military report from the southern city of Davao, large numbers of armed guerrillas have been spotted in three surrounding provinces. The guerrillas "appear to be consolidating and preparing for mass action," the official Philippine News Agency quoted Col. Romeo Recina as saying in Davao.
Referring to the deputizing of the armed forces, election commission chairman Victorino Savellano said the move was intended to provide security at polling places, prevent intimidation of voters by armed groups, and provide transportation, communications and other facilities as needed for the delivery and collection of ballots, election returns and other materials. The commission earlier had deputized the Philippine Constabulary and the Integrated National Police under the military's vice chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos.
[In Washington, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), head of the official U.S. observer team, said Monday that the group will watch and observe but not pass judgment on the fairness of the election. The 20-member delegation leaves Tuesday.]