Gov't in backchannel talks to protect ceasefire – Bello

MANILA, Philippines – Government chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III dismissed fears that the 5-month-old ceasefire between the military and the New People's Army could collapse.

"I don't think it will ever collapse. There was never a threat," Bello said in a Rapple Talk interview, citing his conversations with his counterpart National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili in late December 2016.

He said backchannel talks are in place to guarantee that the unilateral indefinite ceasefires – which happened for the first time in the talks that have been on and off for 3 decades – will continue to hold as the two camp hammer out a joint bilateral deal that will put in place common rules for soldiers and communist combatants to follow to avoid misencounters. (READ: PH, NDF resume talks, silence guns)

"I don't think [the ceasefire will collapse], given the way our conversation went with chairman Agcaoili. It gives me comfort that the bilateral ceasefire will be coming soon," said Bello.

The backchannel talks are led by government negotiating panel member Hernani Braganza. 

Bello aims to sign the joint deal during the 3rd round of talks next week, January 19-25, that will be held in Rome. Norway is the 3rd country facilitator.

Bello's optimism was not shared by Agcaoili, who said last week that the danger of the ceasefire collapsing is real, citing delays in the release of political prisoners and alleged ceasefire violations by the military. (READ: Ceasefire with reds in danger)

"They have their public. We have our public," Bello said about Agcaoili's statements. 

But Bello said no one can claim violations yet because there are no common rules under the separate unilateral ceasefires. 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday, January 12, also said the chance of the ceasefire holding is "50-50". He cited supposedly difficult demands by the NDF.

Upon the instruction of President Rodrigo Duterte, the military has adjusted its campaign plan to support the peace talks with the communist rebels. (READ: AFP chief: Reds should work with military in new campaign plan

On Wednesday, defense officials and military officers also met with presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza to give inputs they would like added to the proposed bilateral ceasefire deal. 

Lorenzana said the joint deal cannot be rushed. (READ: Further delay looms in PH, NDF joint ceasefire deal)

Both camps originally aimed to get the joint deal signed by October 2016, but disagreements in the definition of terms have delayed it, along with NDF protests over the late release of political prisoners.

Bello said the ceasefire is important "to provide the talks with conducive atmosphere." He said he has not adjusted his goal to complete the talks by August 2017.  – Rappler.com