President Corazon Aquino, in an interview here today, said she would soon name a "commission on reconciliation" to negotiate with Communist insurgents but insisted that the guerrillas must turn in their arms as part of any cease-fire.
Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, in a separate interview, described progress on military reforms that he said the Philippine armed forces were making to counter more effectively the guerrilla New People's Army on the battlefield.
Enrile also expressed reservations about calling for a cease-fire with the rebels, which Aquino has advocated.
In effect, the two leaders' remarks reflected an emerging carrot-and-stick approach to a Communist insurgency in the countryside that grew in strength during the past several years of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos' rule and confronts the new government with a major problem.
The interviews also indicated differences in approach between the civilian and military establishments on the issue of political prisoners, although Enrile made clear that the military would respect the policy decisions of the new civilian leadership.
Aquino, who assumed office last Tuesday in the midst of a military mutiny and popular revolt that ousted president Ferdinand Marcos, suggested that a delay in freeing four key prisoners was simply a matter of "the processing of the papers" for their release. Another 441 political prisoners already have been ordered freed.
The four include Jose Maria Sison, the former chairman and founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and Bernabe Buscayno, alias Commander Dante, the former head of the party's guerrilla arm, the New People's Army. Both have been jailed for nearly a decade.
Enrile, who served as defense minister under Marcos for 15 years, underscored the potential risks of releasing the four. "Our assessment of the situation may be too biased in favor of security," he said, but "we told [the Aquino administration] we feel we should not let them all go."
In an interview at her office in a building owned by her brother in the business district of Makati, Aquino said the planned special "commission on reconciliation" would meet with insurgents and negotiate their surrender. She also insisted that the guerrillas must lay down their arms, but the guerrillas have said that they will refuse to give up their weapons.
Her statement came as 12 policemen and three civilians were reported killed today in an attack by men armed with submachine guns in Albay Province, southeast of Manila. The attack, in a region of the country known as a stronghold of Communist guerrillas, appeared to mark the end of a lull in insurgent activity that coincided with last month's revolt against Marcos.
Aquino said insurgents had contacted her recently through intermediaries to inquire about surrender terms. "I've been getting a lot of people wanting to talk," she said. "They've been there for so long. But they're most concerned about starting a new life and what can the government possibly give them."
The Philippines faces separate rebellions by the Communist New People's Army, which has approximately 16,000 fighters under arms, and by the Moro National Liberation Front, a Moslem separatist group that has several thousand guerrilla fighters and operates in the south.
Aquino has said she believes most insurgents are decent people who became disillusioned with Marcos' regime and will now be disposed to return to normal lives.
She has said she will declare a cease-fire in the war against them for six months and offer the guerrillas amnesty. However, if they continue to battle the government, she has said, she will "use the power of the state" to fight them.
Aquino said that she hoped the new commission on reconciliation will be chaired by ex-senator Jose Diokno, a former political prisoner under Marcos' government who now heads a human rights group. The commission would offer insurgents safe passage to come and talk, "so that we can find out just what are they asking for and in return what are they offering to the government," she said.
With the commission, Aquino will be trying to follow in the footsteps of her late husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who in 1953 negotiated the surrender of Luis Taruc, leader of the Huks, a communist insurgent movement that was defeated.
Communist leaders have suggested to journalists that they are willing to negotiate a cease-fire, provided they are given certain as yet unspecified "concessions" and do not have to surrender their weapons.
At the Ministry of National Defense, Enrile said military reforms were progressing rapidly and that a "reorganization" of his ministry would be undertaken by a respected former general. Enrile said he has asked retired Lt. Gen. Rafael Ileto, currently ambassador to Thailand, to become a deputy defense minister and help streamline the administration.
Ileto, a former armed forces vice chief of staff, was sent abroad as an ambassador -- first to Iran -- after he refused to endorse Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972.
Besides being "a very respected military officer," Enrile said, Ileto "is also very knowledgeable about counterinsurgency." He said political, economic and military reforms were essential "because this enemy [the New People's Army] will continue and will strengthen itself if we do not watch out."
Enrile expressed reservations about calling a cease-fire, because such measures are "good only if there are defined political objectives to be obtained." He added, "I suggest in these things we must walk cautiously. We must be very careful because these gentlemen [the Communists] are very adept in their art."
Enrile also said a committee on political prisoners would meet again shortly to discuss the cases of the remaining four inmates. He said Sison was "a symbol of the movement" and that his release could result in either a regrouping around him or "a cleavage within their ranks, which will weaken them." He said that his ministry would make recommendations but that policy decisions on handling the insurgency were up to the new president.
Aquino said she was trying to avoid actions that would "rekindle animosities" between her followers and pro-Marcos factions, and she reiterated a plea for patience as she makes a transition to the presidency and deals with major issues.
Regarding U.S. bases, Aquino has said she will allow them to remain until the current agreement expires in 1991 and will keep her options open after that.
Asked today whether she views the bases as a positive or negative influence on peace and security in the region, she declined to answer.
"Actually, it's not a top priority at this time. As I said, I'm for trying to get back to normalcy as soon as possible, and I'm not about to inflame or to bring about more objects of disagreement."
With numerous pictures of her family on display in her temporary office, Aquino said the first days of her administration have been trying. "I asked before the weekend, do you think I could have Saturday and Sunday off, because I still have this cold. Everyone was saying, sure, sure."
Aquino said she had given officials one more week to finish preparing Malacanang presidential palace, which must be cleared of trash left by looters and of mines and explosives left by Marcos' security troops. She has said she will work but not live there.
Aquino said she did not plan to try to extradite Marcos, and did not want him coming back for the time being. "I don't want to rekindle animosities, and as I say it's only been a few days and I would like tensions to further ease."