MANILA - Communist rebels waging one of Asia's longest running insurgencies seized dozens of prospectors in a remote Philippine gold rush site and used them as "human shields" against pursuing troops, a military official said Sunday.
About 80 members of the New People's Army (NPA) "prevented" 39 miners, including four children, from leaving the mining site in Compostela Valley Saturday to stop troops from advancing and capturing them, regional army chief Lieutenant Colonel Michael Logico told AFP.
Local officials persuaded the rebels to free most of the miners, although it is believed around a dozen are still being held at the site.
"It's a desperate move," Logico said.
"They are using them as human shields. They know without the civilians they are vulnerable to an assault."
Logico said the military launched the assault in two fronts last week to flush out the rebels amid reports that they were harassing villages.
"We had been conducting platoon-sized combat operations that forced them to flee," he said, adding that all in all, two battalions, or about 800 men, were involved in the operation.
The mountainous area in the southern Philippines where the offensives took place is a mineral-rich site that has over the years attracted thousands of prospectors who operate illegal gold mines.
Entire villages have been set up around such mines, which have also become a lucrative source of extortion money from the rebels, officials have said.
The Philippines has stepped up its operations against the NPA in recent months, capturing three of its senior leaders since March in what has been described by the military as a deadly blow to the movement.
The NPA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose Maoist rebellion has claimed tens of thousands since 1969.
President Benigno Aquino had hoped to reach a peace deal with the rebels before his six-year term ends in 2016, but planned peace talks have been hampered by demands by the rebels to free detained comrades.
With the fresh arrests and continuing offensives, the prospects of reopening talks have further dimmed, officials said.