[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo returns the salute of new Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Alexander Yano while retired chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. looks on at Camp Aquinaldo yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, May 14, 2008 (STAR) By James Mananghaya Tuesday, May 13, 2008 Lt. Gen. Alexander Yano took over yesterday as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief from retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. who declared that he had accomplished his mission to weaken the communist rebels and other national security threats.

Yano, the former Army commanding general, replaced Esperon after formal turnover ceremonies yesterday presided over by President Arroyo at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

The President said she wanted Esperon to have a much-deserved vacation, but he needed to “hurry back” to serve the country.

In an interview after the ceremony, Esperon said he did not yet know what government position the President would give him.

“I was surprised with that. Serving can come in different forms, so whatever position is offered to me, service to the people is always noble,” he said.

In his speech, Esperon said that during his 22-month stint, the AFP has further weakened the communist New People’s Army (NPA), bringing the number of active rebels and their firearms, as well as their guerrilla fronts, to an all-time low.

He also said that the deaths of top terrorist leaders like Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani signaled the demise of terrorism in the country.

“I am happy to report to our Commander-in-Chief and our nation: first, that the forces of communist insurgency are in disarray, hardly able to breathe and should make their final gasp within the timetable set by Her Excellency,” he said.

He also said that during the period, there was relative peace in Mindanao because the primacy of the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been upheld.

Citing combat statistics, Esperon said NPA guerrilla fronts were reduced to 79 as of the first quarter of this year, compared to 100 in December 2006. Ten more have been downgraded. The strength of the NPA is down to 5,470, less than half their estimated number in 2001.

Esperon, a member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1974, also said the present-day AFP has taken a strong stand against military adventurism, owing to the soldiers’ awareness of their mandated duties and responsibilities.

He said soldiers understand that grievances within the organization must be heard and immediately addressed within the confines of that organization.

Yano, for his part, said that the AFP, under his watch, would sustain the momentum gained by the government in its internal security operations against major national security threats, by implementing programs that were started during the tenure of his predecessor.

“We shall respond with courage and ensure that the timetable for dismantling communist guerrilla fronts is preserved and followed… the enemies of democracy shall be decimated, as scheduled, as planned,” Yano said, adding the campaign against the insurgency would also give emphasis on the observance of human rights and rule of law.

Former Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr., in a statement sent to The STAR, said Yano’s appointment is a “testament to the triumph of professionalism and competence in the AFP.”

“Our fruitful collaboration in implementing the Philippine Defense Reform program, our own distinct blueprint to institute comprehensive, institutional and systemic reforms within the defense and military establishment, assures me that during your watch, the on-going transformation of our of our defense and military institutions will be well guided,” Cruz said.

President Arroyo hinted that Esperon will be appointed to another government post.

“Have a well-deserved vacation Jun (Esperon) and hurry back to serve our people again,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

She described Esperon as an outstanding leader “in the finest tradition of our Armed Forces.”

Esperon’s forthcoming appointment, however, remains a guessing game.

There were earlier reports that Esperon would be appointed defense secretary but Malacañang officials subsequently said that Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro would not be affected by the government revamp.

There are reports that Esperon would be given an assignment at the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA). — With Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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