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The president, he said, understands the rebels‘ concerns. His mother, former President Corazon Aquino, led a 1986 “people power” protest that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose martial law declaration in 1972 provided the fodder for the rebel movement as students, farmers and the middle class swelled its ranks to some 25,000.

After restoring democracy, Mrs. Aquino opened talks with the rebels, but they soon broke down. Battle setbacks, factionalism and surrenders have sapped their strength, but they still claim a presence in each of the Philippines‘ 81 provinces.

The NPA operates a shadow government in areas under its influence, conducting trials — and sometimes executions — of policemen and village officials accused of harming people. The rebels also collect “revolutionary taxes” — and punish business establishments refusing to pay.

Mr. Aquino won rare praise from the rebels when he recently ordered the dropping of charges against 43 health workers who claimed they were abused in military custody after being arrested as suspected insurgents 10 months ago.

Mr. Padilla said the rebels — faced with the collapse of many communist states that supported and inspired them, and with a popular new national leader seen as addressing social inequities — may soon fade to irrelevance if they persist on waging a protracted war.

He noted that even hardline leftists have been elected into Congress after abandoning their armed struggle.

Mr. Madlos said oppressive conditions in the country that have fostered poverty, corruption and rights abuses remain under Mr. Aquino.

Despite sporadic fighting, including the killing of 10 army soldiers in a Dec. 14 rebel ambush, both sides have agreed to resume formal talks Feb. 15-21 in Norway’s capital, Oslo. They also agreed to a Christmas truce through Jan. 3.

The military, meanwhile, has softened its counterinsurgency strategy, which has been linked to extrajudicial killings of hundreds of left-wing activists and suspected rebel sympathizers.

The new six-year program unveiled last week seeks to wean away civilian communities from the rebels and includes support of advocacy groups from outside the government in addressing human rights concerns.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said it showed that a part of the 120,000-strong military has agreed to adhere to human rights safeguards.

“It’s no longer the body-count approach. This is a war for hearts and mind,” Mr. Casiple said. “The rebels should realize that the ground is shifting.”