(AP) More than 100 communist guerrillas stormed one of the world's largest pineapple plantations, killing a guard, burning farm equipment and blocking traffic in three southern Philippine towns in their biggest attack this year, officials said Wednesday.
At least two other guards were shot and wounded by the New People's Army guerrillas, who barged into a residential, recreational and office complex on the vast plantation of Del Monte Philippines Inc. late Tuesday in Manolo Fortich town in Bukidnon province, Army Lt. Col. Eugenio Osias said.
The Maoist guerrillas, who were disguised as army soldiers and traveled in two trucks, two vans and two motorcycles, blocked a patrol car carrying three police officers at a Manolo Fortich bridge and seized two rifles and two pistols from them shortly before the assault on Del Monte, Osias said.
Reinforcement troops clashed with the rebels for 20 minutes prior to the Del Monte attack, but the guerrillas managed to withdraw and proceeded to the plantation, where they shot to death a guard at the gate and later wounded two other guards, regional police chief Catalino Rodriguez said.
The Maoist rebels burned a tractor and other farm equipment, ransacked buildings and seized firearms in the plantation's Camp Phillips, a scenic complex of country homes, a golf course and a clubhouse for farm officers and workers, Osias said.
Rebel spokesman Jorge Madlos said Wednesday that the assault was punishment for Del Monte's refusal to heed a guerrilla demand to stop expanding its already-vast plantations, which are suspected of affecting the capacity of waterways and tributaries to absorb rainwater from an increasing number of killer storms.
According to its website, Del Monte Philippines operates the largest integrated pineapple operation in the world, growing pineapples across 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres) in Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental provinces. It is not affiliated with the U.S.-based Del Monte Foods Company.
Madlos said the insurgents seized 19 assault rifles and pistols at Del Monte and in other simultaneous assaults in Bukidnon, about 860 kilometers (535 miles) southeast of Manila.
Del Monte officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the rebel claim.
Osias said Madlos' statement was propaganda to cover a ruthless attack on civilians and a private company. It's not for environmental protection, it's for extortion, he said.
Several guerrillas blocked traffic in two nearby Bukidnon towns to prevent reinforcement troops from immediately responding to the Del Monte attack, scattering spikes on the road to disable vehicles and seizing mobile phones from several motorists, he said.
A separate rebel group simultaneously raided the office on another pineapple plantation in Bukidnon's Impasug-ong town, stealing guns and belongings of its personnel, Osias said.
The 43-year-old Marxist insurgency is one of Asia's longest-running. The rebels' armed force has been weakened from a peak of about 25,000 fighters in the mid-1980s to about 4,000 due to battle losses, surrenders and factionalism, although the Philippine government regards them as the country's most serious security threat.
The rebels, mostly based in the countryside, have stepped up attacks against military and police targets, as well as mining firms and major plantations, despite efforts by the government and guerrilla leaders to resume peace talks, which stalled years ago over disagreements on a rebel demand for the release of captured insurgents.
Washington regards the New People's Army as a terrorist group, accusing it of attacks against Americans in the Philippines.