MANILA - Philippine security forces arrested the head of the Communist movement's armed wing following President Rodrigo Duterte's order to target guerrilla leaders after peace talks collapsed, police and human rights lawyers said on Thursday.
Rafael Baylosis and a companion attempted to flee from army and police intelligence agents following them but were cornered on Wednesday afternoon in the capital's central district, according to a police report seen by Reuters.
The arrest of Baylosis was a product of intelligence and surveillance operations after a tip-off from residents in Quezon City, said John Bulalacao, national police spokesman.
"Baylosis is believed to be the acting secretary of the New People's Army (NPA)," Bulalacao said, referring to the 3,000-member guerrilla force waging a protracted war in rural areas for nearly 50 years.
The conflict has killed more than 40,000 and stunted growth in poor but resource-rich regions in the country, where mines and plantations are located.
He was the first ranking rebel leader to be captured after the Philippines ended a peace process with communist rebels late last year.
Human rights advocates and leftist activists are expected to hold protests on Thursday in front of the national police headquarters to condemn the arrest and demand Baylosis' release because he was covered by a state-issued immunity pass.
"The trumped-up charges must stop," Renato Reyes, secretary-general of activist group Bayan (Nation), said in a statement.
"Rather than persecute peace consultants, Duterte should resume peace talks on the most important substantive agenda." The rebels' political arm, National Democratic Front (NDF), protested the arrest, which it described as "illegal" and"flagrant violation" of safety guarantee because Baylosis is a peace talks consultant.
In August 2016, Baylosis was part of 18 rebel leaders' freed on bail and allowed to travel to The Netherlands to take part in peace negotiations. He is facing murder charges after the army discovered in 2006 a mass grave of 15 suspected government spies killed in the central Philippines.
In November Duterte terminated intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels and considered them "terrorists" because hostilities had continued during negotiations, ordering security forces to go after guerrilla leaders.