MORE RETURNEES. Photo shows the New People’s Army (NPA) flags, subversive documents, medical supplies, and an improvised homemade M-14 sniper rifle surrendered by 34 former combatants in Norala town, South Cotabato province on Friday. The returnees were previously under the field units of the NPA’s Guerilla Front 73 that operates in the mountainous boundaries of Norala, Banga and Tantangan towns, and Koronadal City in South Cotabato. (Photo courtesy of the South Cotabato 1st Provincial Mobile Force Company)

GENERAL SANTOS CITY – A total of 34 more New People’s Army (NPA) rebels, including a sub-leader, surrendered on Friday to local officials and government authorities in Norala town, South Cotabato province.

Lt. Col. Celestino Daniel Jr., chief of the South Cotabato 1st Provincial Mobile Force Company (PMFC), said on Saturday the rebels decided to yield along with several firearms during a joint community outreach activity in Barangay Tinago, Norala.

Dubbed “Kapwa Ko, Sagot Ko-Adopt an Indigent Family Program,” he said the initiative benefited poor residents of Sitios Lower and Upper Bangkal in Tinago.

Officials of Norala town and elements from the South Cotabato 2nd PMFC, Norala municipal police station, 12th Army Special Forces Company, Regional Intelligence Unit-12, and 1205th Maneuver Company of the Regional Mobile Force Battalion-12 joined the event.

Daniel said the village was close to the mountainous boundaries of Norala, Banga and Tantangan towns, and Koronadal City in South Cotabato that was operated by units under the NPA’s Guerilla Front 73-Far South Mindanao Region.

He said the surrender of the former NPA fighters was an offshoot of their continuing internal security operations in these areas.

They gave up at least 10 low and high-powered firearms, explosives, subversive documents, NPA emblems, and assorted medical kit and supplies.

Citing accounts from the returnees, Daniel said they decided to surface and lay down their firearms due to their difficult situation in the mountains, which worsened due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

“They wanted to experience real freedom and embrace the government’s peace efforts,” he said in a statement.

Norala Mayor Clemente Fedoc said they had been negotiating the surrender of the rebels for weeks through their task force to end the local communist armed conflict.

He said they were originally scheduled to hold another dialogue in Barangay Tinago on Friday morning but were told that some of the rebels were ready to surrender.

“We were surprised and really grateful because we only expected 18 to 20 surrenderers but their number increased to 34,” he said in an interview over radio station Bombo Radyo in Koronadal City on Friday night.

He said some of the returnees were not able to bring their firearms but signified to surrender them in the next few days.

Fedoc said they initially provided the former rebels with food packs and other essential supplies.

He said the local government will assist the enrollment of the returnees into the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program so they can avail of financial, livelihood, and other support packages from the government. (PNA)