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Philippine rebels deny grand design behind bridge attacks

Military and civilian officials here are promoting the theory that the country's 19-year-old communist insurgency has begun to establish a provisional revolutionary government (PRG) in the Bicol Peninsula, south of Manila. As supporting evidence, they cite the destruction of four bridges this month - allegedly by rebels in that area.

The fallen bridges have effectively cut off the region's four provinces, bringing trade, transport, and commerce from Manila to a mere trickle. The bridges, one of which is a railway bridge, play a large part in the lives of the 3.4 million Bicolanos most of whom are poor fishermen and coconut farmers living alternately with droughts and typhoons that frequent the area.

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The communist National Democratic Front, however, expressed surprise at the strong reaction generated by the Bicol blast. In an interview, Satur Ocampo, an official of the NDF's military wing, the New People's Army (NPA), claimed that the NPA blew up only two of the bridges and denied any ``grand design'' for Bicol. The other blasts, Mr. Ocampo alleged, could have been done by the military which is out to discredit the insurgency.

The military has advanced the theory that the underground is isolating the region because it is about to establish a shadow government. The blasting of bridges, said an intelligence officer, is merely a ``diversionary tactic'' to keep the military busy inland while the NPA lands firearms in the coastline.

The NPA has kept a long silence on the bridges making even sympathetic Bicolanos doubt the rebel's intentions. A cleric assigned to the province noted that the blowing up of bridges does not fit the ``pro people'' policy that made the NPA popular.

The question that has bothered political observers is why the NPA is literally and figuratively burning bridges. The national rebel leadership says that the regional commands may blow up bridges as a ``military practical offensive.'' But so far, the local NPA command has provided no explanation.

The Philippine armed forces, long looking for a case to build against the rebels - especially in Bicol where they enjoy broad popular support - has mounted both a propaganda and military counteroffensive against the rebels.

Armed forces chief of staff Gen. Fidel Ramos said last week that ``in hitting those targets related to the welfare of the people, the NPA is hurting the people much more than they're hurting the military.'' The rebels, he added, have taken advantage of the ``temporary weakness'' of the armed forces, brought about by the Aug. 28 coup attempt, to mount their offensive.

``The military analysts are way off'' Ocampo said. They have ``deliberately blown up the situation'' in Bicol to justify sending more troops there and setting up an army of anticommunist vigilante groups.

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As to a provisional government, Ocampo said that numerous PRGs now exist at the village, municipal, and provincial levels nationwide. However, there is no plan to set up one that will encompass the entire Bicol region.

Ocampo said that, with the military spread thin by the failed coup, the NPA has been ordered to intensify its operations.

Last Friday President Aquino ordered a ``military solution'' to the Bicol insurgency. With three battalions and several companies of elite Scout Rangers in the area, the Army has begun to report small victories. There has, however, been no major shooting war in Bicol.

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