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Victims of Philippines dirty war

Unarmed students, farmers, even priests are being executed in a brutal campaign to silence opposition. Evan Williams reports

It was 2am when Karen Empeno, 24, and Sherlyn Kadapan, 23, were dragged from their beds by armed men. They were tied up and thrown into the back of a jeep. That was on 26 June 2006. The girls' families have not seen them since.

Karen and Sherlyn were university students who had been interviewing peasant farmers for a thesis on social conditions. They had also been campaigning against government corruption. Witnesses have testified in court that the men who abducted them were Filipino soldiers.

Their families believe the girls are among the 199 people who have been "disappeared" and the 933 who have been killed in extrajudicial executions over the past seven years in a secret war. Human rights groups say the battle is being waged by the armed forces of the Philippines against left-wing organisations.

Trade unionists, social activists, farming organisers, journalists and priests are all being targeted, according to the Philippines' leading human rights group, Karapatan. "We think the government is trying to terrorise people so they will cower in silence and be driven to inaction," said the group's spokesman, Ruth Cervantes.

The Philippines' President, Gloria Arroyo, is one of the West's most loyal allies in US President George Bush's "war on terror". In the eight years to the end of this year, her government will have received more than £230m in direct military aid from America to target Islamic extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in the south of the archipelago. Activists say that the money is funding a war against organisations campaigning for better conditions for workers.

The army denies the charge. But it does not deny monitoring community groups it believes could be acting as fronts for a communist rebellion led by the renegade New Peoples' Army. It is this campaign that Filipinos fear is leading to the disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

"Once you are an organiser, once you are an activist, they call you a communist," Karen's father, Oscar, said. "Once you are a communist, that means you are an enemy of the state and once you are an enemy of the state they can abduct you, they can harass you, they can kill you, anything. That's the killing machine of the President, of the military."

The New People's Army is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Getting to them is not easy. But high in the forested Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon, a camp is home to the guerillas' many young recruits. Some have just finished university.

Their spokesman, Simon Naogson, wanted for multiple murder and insurrection, explained why they had taken up arms in a democracy. "History has shown when we tried through peaceful political means our leaders were jailed and executed," he said.

The government accuses the rebels of killing state employees and imposing "revolutionary taxes" on companies, especially mining firms.

Mr Naogson admits that rebels do tax companies and fighters kill state officials: "These are soldiers, police, spies and people in the pay of the government," he said. "They are legitimate targets." This low-level conflict is claiming the lives of hundreds from both sides every year.

Karapatan accuses the army of widening its targets to include non-armed, non-combatant members of legitimate, left-leaning organisations. "All 933 cases of extrajudicial killing that we have documented are people who've been killed by state security forces," said Ruth Cervantes. "They are not armed combatants."

A document released by the army lists dozens of civil society groups which it thinks are fronts for rebels. It includes organisations representing teachers, lawyers, students, fishermen, farm workers, women's groups, human rights workers and priests.

The assistant chief of the human rights division of the armed forces, Major Pipito Lolor, admits that the army has units whose job it is to identify trouble-makers. "We have units in charge of identifying those groups, whether they belong to the left-wing group or not. As part of the campaign to attain our goals as mandated by our commander-in-chief, we need to identify all of these groups." He denied that the military was behind the 933 killings and 199 disappearances. "The communist is very good at using propaganda," he said.

The United Nations does not agree. Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings to the Philippines, held an investigation last year. His key finding was clear. "The armed forces remain in a state of denial of its need to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings which have been convincingly attributed to them," Mr Alston said. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US State Department all agreed in separate reports that state security services are responsible.

Oscar and Connie Empeno were recently invited to meet a man called Raymond Manalo. He said he been held in captivity in a military base for several months. He says that Karen and Sherlyn were held with him. The military denies holding them. But Mr Manalo said the girls had been tortured and raped. He added that he thought they had been killed. Oscar refuses to believe Karen is dead. "This is a wound that will not heal until I see my daughter again," he said.

Divided islands: The elite and the insurgents

* President Gloria Arroyo rose to power after protests led to the ousting of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada.

* Under her, the Philippines has allied itself closely to the "war on terror", using US military aid to combat Islamic separatists. The Muslim minority lives mainly on the island of Mindanao.

* A separate, smaller, insurgency has been conducted in rural areas of the main island for more than 40 years by Maoist rebels of the New People's' Army. This movement grew steadily thanks to peasant unrest under Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda. Ms Arroyo's unpopularity and persistent poverty have helped it to continue.

* Of 88 million inhabitants, around a third live in extreme poverty (income of around $1 a day) while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite.

Unreported World: 'Philippines: Lost in a Shadow War', Channel 4, tomorrow, 7.35pm