MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Friday ruled out declaration of a unilateral ceasefire ahead of the resumption of peace talks with communist rebels next week, saying it was more interested in a bilateral truce both sides could stick to.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) plans to declare a unilateral ceasefire no later than Friday and had expected the government to do the same, in line with an agreement made during backchannel talks this month.
Peace negotiations will resume in the Netherlands from April 2 to 6, a month after an angry President Rodrigo Duterte cancelled talks following an ambush of government troops by rebels, who had ended their unilateral ceasefire.
Previous unilateral ceasefires were fragile, with both sides ending up accusing each other of violations in the absence of any ground rules.
The conflict between the government and the CPP's armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), has raged for nearly five decades and killed more than 40,000 people.
Duterte offered an olive branch to the rebels as one of his first moves when taking office last year and has expressed frustration that the communists have sought too many concessions. He sees no point in a unilateral ceasefire.
"Right now there is no reason," said Silvestre Bello, the government's chief peace negotiator. "Our president is more interested in obtaining a bilateral ceasefire agreement."
Such a bilateral ceasefire tops the agenda, Bello said, adding that he would not discount the possibility of Duterte participating in the Utrecht talks.
"We should concentrate more on this more important agreement because this is where we will be assured of the lowering or ending of hostilities," he said.
Bello, however, expects the discussions to be "very, very, very difficult and exacting" as they would also focus on socio-economic reforms at "the heart and soul of the peace process".
In February, Duterte lashed out at the NPA saying there would be no peace for a generation. On Thursday, he said it was his job to find a solution.
"We have been fighting the communists for 50 years," Duterte said. "You want another 50 years of fighting? You really think we can afford it?"
Just two days ahead of the talks, fighting continued between the military and the NPA.
Ten NPA rebels and two soldiers were killed in a firefight in Quezon province on Thursday, the military said.
Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty