Aquino Calls Rebel Truce Offer 'a Step Forward'

Times Staff Writer

President Corazon Aquino on Monday called a proposed cease-fire by the Communist rebels "a step forward" in the effort to end the Philippines' 17-year civil war. Government officials said they are optimistic that an agreement can be reached as early as Wednesday.

The statements came after a 2 1/2-hour meeting of the National Security Council that Aquino called to discuss the 100-day cease-fire plan put forth here Saturday by the Communists' political arm, the National Democratic Front.

Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who has been warning Aquino to be wary of any cease-fire offer by the Communists, was among the first to leave the meeting. Confronted by reporters outside, he said, "I have nothing to tell you."

Others who attended were openly enthusiastic about the rebels' offer.

"I am optimistic--I've always been optimistic," said Agriculture Minister Ramon Mitra, one of three government representatives who have been negotiating with the insurgents over the last four months. He is scheduled to meet with rebel leaders Wednesday to discuss the new proposal.

"If there is no major change," he said, "there could be an announcement after Wednesday's session."

Mitra emphasized that the cease-fire plan is "the product of this long period of negotiation. . . . It's nobody's proposal, neither theirs nor ours."

Aquino issued a three-paragraph statement that said, in part, "The National Democratic Front has taken a step forward in acceding to my proposal for a cease-fire, which I initiated before I undertook my state visit to the United States last Sept. 15 through 25."

A few days before she visited the United States to meet with President Reagan and other officials, Aquino did issue a public call for a 30-day cease-fire, but it was denounced at the time by several leftist leaders.

At a breakfast with reporters this morning, the nation's influential religious leader, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Sin, endorsed Aquino's strategy of seeking a cease-fire.

"I believe that the present government is on the right track," he said. "Let us give her a chance to be able to negotiate."

It was not clear Monday whether leaders of the Philippine armed forces will support the plan outlined by the National Democratic Front.

Gen. Eduardo Ermita, deputy chief of staff, said: "There's no question about that. The military will support a cease-fire."

But Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the chief of staff, refused to comment, either on the meeting or the cease-fire proposal, and several other members of the Security Council said "important details" are still to be negotiated.

Also, Enrile has said he fears that the government is seeking only a temporary agreement with the rebels and that there is no comprehensive policy for resolving the economic and social problems that are fueling the rebellion.

And Enrile and Ramos have both expressed fear that the rebels would use a cease-fire to make deeper ideological inroads in the provinces.

In an apparent effort to placate the military, Aquino said in her statement Monday that "peacekeeping, public safety, police operations and law enforcement functions of the responsible agencies of government shall continue during the period of any cease-fire. . . ."

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