MANILA – Thirty-six of the 39 prospectors seized by New People's Army (NPA) rebels in a remote gold rush site in Compostela Valley have been freed, the military said, but there are fears that more civilians are still held by the communist guerrillas.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Logico, Philippine Army's 66th Infantry Battalion commander, said 36 of the 39 gold prospectors were released Sunday after being used as ''human shields'' by about 80 NPA rebels who were being pursued by two battalions of soldiers.
The 36 civilians were freed through the help of local officials, Logico said.
Logico said three of the gold prospectors were still being held in Sitio Tabon in Barangay Panamin, Mabini town.
He, however, said it is possible that more civilians from Panamin and the villages of Magcagong and Parasanon in the neighboring town of Maragusan who went to Tabon are also being held captive by the rebels.
''We received reports that the enemy were in a position between the municipalities of Maragusan and Mabini. Medyo naipit sila (they were trapped),'' Logico told ANC.
''The list we have right now, that only accounts for the people in Barangay Mahayahay (in Maragusan). We speculate that there are others in other barangays who were also there."
The Army said the rebels involved in the incident belong to the NPA's Guerilla Front 2 and Pulang Bagani Command 6.
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 III 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. – with Agence France-Presse