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Philippines

RELEASE OF CAPTIVES REKINDLES HOPES OF PEACE TALKS

Updated: April 12, 1999 05:00 PM GMT
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The Communist-led New People´s Army (NPA) released Police Chief Inspector Roberto Bernal and Army Sergeant Alipio Lozada, rekindling hopes that peace talks with the government could be revived.

The two captives were released separately to a team led by International Committee of the Red Cross representative Pierre Delacoste.

Bernal, seized Feb. 20, was the first of five NPA prisoners expected to be released. He was set free at 7 a.m. April 9 at the El Retiro Retreat House in Sorsogon, 370 kilometers southeast of Manila.

Bernal was given a medical checkup and met with Romeo Capulong, legal consultant to the National Democratic Front, leftist umbrella group. He then met with others including his wife, a daughter, Bishop Jesus Varela of Sorsogon and Senator Loren Legarda.

Lozada, captured March 5, was released at 3:30 p.m. April 11 in the village of Diacogon in Llanga, Surigao del Sur, 800 kilometers southeast of Manila. He was welcomed by Legarda and Redemptorist Bishop Ireneo Amantillo of Tandag.

The remaining NPA captives are Brigadier General Victor Obillo and his aide Captain Eduardo Montealto, who are set to be released April 16, and Sergeant Wivino Demol, for whom no release date has been set.

The releases were negotiated at talks in the Netherlands between leftist leaders in exile and an independent humanitarian mission led by Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao and Bishop Wilfredo Manlapaz of Tagum. It was conditional on a halt in military operations to free the men.

Lozada, who said he was treated well by his captors, was brought to an army camp in Cagayan de Oro City for a medical checkup and debriefing.

Bernal was given five days´ leave by his superiors before having to report for duty in Quezon City, just north of Manila.

Bishop Varela told UCA News the most dramatic event of the transfer happened when Bernal´s daughter Chrischelle ran to meet her father.

"As the daughter and father embraced, the skies opened up and we were all drenched by a heavy rain that lasted five minutes. As soon as we entered the hall for the press conference, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. It was dramatic," he said.

At the press conference, Bernal said in the local language that the government should resume peace talks with the rebels "so that the families of other police officers will not suffer what I have suffered."

The intelligence officer also embraced members of the 18-man NPA team who released him as they started to leave the area, but Bishop Varela denied allegations that Bernal had been brainwashed by his captors.

"We must not forget that he is an intelligence operative. They can try to indoctrinate him, but it did not seem he gave in to the indoctrination completely," Bishop Varela said. "He knew enough to say what they wanted to hear, but not that he really has accepted it all as true."

Meanwhile, President Joseph Estrada said that he thought peace talks to end the 30-year insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines could be concluded in less than nine months.

"We will set a deadline for the peace process right after we resume (the peace talks). I think it should be within the year," he told reporters.

END

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