Top rebel slain in blow to Philippine communist rebellion

DAVAO, Philippines - The Philippine military has shot dead an infamous communist guerilla leader in a blow to one of the world's longest-running Maoist insurgencies, authorities said Monday.

New People's Army (NPA) commander Leonardo Pitao was killed in a mountainous hamlet near the major southern city of Davao on Sunday by army special forces, the military said.

"He's an NPA idol, and now they will see how the long arm of the law finally caught up with their leader," Major-General Eduardo Ano said of the rebel leader also known as "Commander Parago".

"This is not only going to be a big setback; this is going to be what you call the fall of the NPA in the Davao region," Ano told reporters.

A woman believed to be Pitao's medic was also killed as the months-long operation targeting the most famous guerrilla leader in the main southern island of Mindanao ended, a military statement said.

The 46-year-old rebellion has claimed tens of thousands of lives and impoverished large areas of the country.

The insurgency's armed force is now estimated at less than 4,000 fighters, about half of which on Mindanao. The military says the group sustains itself by extorting from businesses.

The military said Pitao, described by the local press as about 57 years old, commanded the 700-strong Pulang Bagani Command.

He had several standing arrest warrants for various crimes ranging from murder to robbery, the military statement said.

In 1999 Pitao's unit abducted Brigadier-General Victor Obillo, head of an army engineering unit building roads in remote, impoverished areas influenced by communist guerrillas.

Pitao was arrested later that same year, after Obillo and his military aide were freed unharmed.

However the guerilla leader was released less than two years later as part of the government's efforts to hold peace talks with the insurgents, which have so far been unsuccessful.

In 2009, Pitao's 20-year-old daughter, who was not accused of being a guerrilla, was abducted by unknown gunmen and later found murdered in Davao. Her murder was never solved.

The NPA blamed the security forces for the unsolved killing, and said it would hold the then-president Gloria Arroyo's administration responsible. The military rejected the allegation.

Pitao's killing followed the detention earlier this month of Adelberto Silva, described by the military as the "highest-ranking" leader of the NPA's mother organisation the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Last year the government arrested CPP chairman Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma Tiamzon, the party's secretary-general.

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