Manila, Feb. 16, 2003 -- Government negotiators are meeting with their communist counterparts in the Netherlands next week to try to revive peace talks stalled for nearly two years, an official said yesterday.

The panel will hand over a proposed final peace agreement approved by President Arroyo last month to leaders of the Marxist umbrella group, the National Democratic Front (NDF), who are living in exile in the Dutch city of Utrecht, said chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III.

"This is an exploratory meeting to explore the possibility of resuming the formal peace negotiations," he said.

Bello said the draft peace agreement covers the "substantive" agenda earlier agreed upon by the two sides respect for human rights, economic and social reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and disposition of armed forces.

Bello will be joined in the trip by Presidential Management Staff secretary Silvestre Afable and the government's peace panel executive director Carla Munsayac-Villarta.

He said they expect their NDF counterparts to present their own counterproposal to the proposed peace deal.

Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement that the deal was intended to "jumpstart what I hope will be a speedier peace process" to end the longest-running communist insurgency in Southeast Asia.

The President's decision to resume the peace talks came even after the government strongly campaigned in the Netherlands and other European nations to support the United States' action to include the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-NDF-New People's Army (NPA) in its watchlist of foreign terrorist organizations.

CPP founder Jose Ma. Sison earlier demanded that the government work for the group's removal in the watchlist for them to agree to resume the peace talks.

"But that would be a violation of the Hague Declaration which is very clear that peace negotiations shall be undertaken without any precondition," Bello stressed.

The peace talks in 1986-1987 under then President Corazon Aquino collapsed after government troops killed 13 farmers demanding land reform in a rally near the presidential palace. The current on-and-off talks resumed in 1992, until Mrs. Arroyo suspended them in June 2001 after communist NPA guerrillas assassinated a former congressman and intelligence officer.

Bello said the peace proposal includes only one agreement, unlike the previous four: "Our draft peace agreement contains the fundamental reform measures that we believe address the root causes of the armed conflict. Since they are also interested in reforms, this should be acceptable to them."

Under the draft proposal, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press, the government would offer "absolute and unconditional" amnesty to the guerrillas, except those who have committed crimes unrelated to the insurgency.

In exchange, the rebels should disband the NPA and surrender their weapons. Livelihood would be provided to the guerrillas and a six-month ceasefire would take effect when the accord is signed.

CPP spokesman Gregorio Rosal last month said the rebels will reject the peace deal because it would amount to surrender.

However, it is stated in the 29-page draft accord that the guerrillas' "acceptance of this accord does not mean surrender but their voluntary act of reconciliation, with their honor and dignity intact."

Rosal laid down three conditions for the resumption of the talks: a halt to military offensives that allegedly hurt civilians, the recognition of past agreements including a human rights accord and a stop to the government's labeling of the insurgents as terrorists.

From a few dozen guerrillas in the late 1960s in the northern Philippines, guerrilla strength peaked in the mid-1980s at more than 25,000 nationwide. But the number dropped to as low as around 6,000 following a major split in the local communist movement in the early 1990s, surrenders and battle casualties.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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