Stretched Philippine army slows anti-Communist fight

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MANILA, Sep 30 (Reuters) The Philippine army, stretched by skirmishes with Muslim separatist groups, is falling behind in its aim to wipe out communist insurgents before the end of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidential term in 2010.

Major-General Jogy Leo Fojas, head of military operations, said the army had failed to meet its half-year target in the campaign against the communist New People's Army (NPA).

''As of the first semester 2007, we have only dismantled three guerrilla fronts,'' Fojas said in a radio interview on Sunday. ''Our target for the whole of 2007 was 18 guerrilla fronts. Our field commanders are still doing their best to meet the target.'' Fojas gave no reason for missing the targets, but an intelligence official told Reuters that security forces had been sidetracked by elections in May, as well as by efforts to hunt down Islamic militants in the south.

''Our troops are thinly spread across the archipelago and we moved so many resources to address the more immediate threat posed by Islamic militants from the Abu Sayyaf,'' said the senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified.

''We're too busy putting out fires here and there in the first half of the year, but we've really not neglected the communists. In some cases, the rebels just took advantage of the vacuum left by the movement of our forces.'' Fojas said military field commanders had made commitments to redouble their efforts. He cited latest military intelligence estimates showing that the NPA strength had fallen to about 6,300 fighters at the end of June, down 900 from the end of 2006.

''We've made some significant gains but we're pushing our commanders in the field to do more to meet our goals of strategically defeating the communist insurgency by 2010 based on our campaign plan,'' Fojas said.

Under its counter-insurgency plan, codenamed ''Bantay Laya II'' (Guard Freedom II), the military aimed to dismantle about 80 per cent of the 100 NPA guerrilla fronts in 69 of 81 provinces arcoss the country.

About 18 guerrilla fronts were targeted for dismantling this year and the remaining 62 rebel bases to be destroyed between January 2008 and June 2010.

Since 1969, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, one of the longest Maoist-led rebellions in Asia.

A senior general said on Sunday that the Philippines was buying 10 second-hand UH-1H helicopters, worth 8.8 million dollar, from Singapore next year to beef up its depleted fleet.

''We're really short of helicopters. We only have 41 helicopters in flying condition but, ideally, we should have 100 aircraft to perform our mission,'' said Major-General Pedro Ike Inserto, the air force vice commander.

REUTERS SZ PM1405

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