Philippines declares unilateral Christmas truce with Maoists

MANILA - The Philippines declared on Saturday an 18-day unilateral Christmas truce with Maoist guerrillas, in part to let forces focus on relief efforts on a southern island devastated by a typhoon, an army spokesman said.

The government has been fighting communist rebels for 40 years. About 40,000 people have been killed and investors have been scared away from poor but resource-rich rural regions.

A Dec. 4 typhoon killed 955 people and nearly 850 are missing, most in the provinces of Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley, on Mindano island, where communist New People's Army (NPA) rebels are active.

Both the army and rebels are involved in relief operations in the area and they declared informal truces on Dec. 10.

"Many of our men and women are working round the clock conducting search, rescue and relief operations in disaster-stricken areas," said military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos.

The army was suspending offensive operations nationwide against the rebels from Dec. 16 to Jan. 2, he said. Soldiers would be on alert and would defend themselves, he said.

The truce would also allow soldiers and their families to celebrate Christmas peacefully, Burgos said.

Last year, the government and communist rebels agreed on a 19-day holiday truce, the longest in 10 years, ahead of the resumption of peace talks aimed at ending one of the world's longest-running Maoist insurgencies.

But talks have been stalled over a rebel demand for the release of prisoners and the government's demand that the rebels stop extorting money from mines, plantations and construction companies.

Norway has been brokering the on-off negotiations.

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