MANILA — Seven Philippine soldiers, including an air force colonel, died when the helicopter they were flying in crashed in the southern Philippines during a hunt for communist rebels over the weekend.
The military said the helicopter, a refurbished UH-1H Vietnam-era craft commonly known as a Huey, was flying Saturday with another Huey on a supply run to a remote base in Pantaron, a mountainous region in Bukidnon Province, when it crashed.
“The other helicopter radioed and told them they were trailing smoke,” said Maj. Gen. Andres Centeno, the commanding general of the army’s Fourth Infantry Division. “It crashed into an open field.”
No survivors were found when rescuers reached the area, he said.
The soldiers’ names were not released pending notification of their families, but the highest ranking among them was an air force colonel, the military said. Of the other six, three were airmen and three served in the army.
The forward-operating base was set up as part of a campaign to finally eradicate the New People’s Army, the armed unit of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The insurgent group has been locked in a low-intensity conflict with the government in Manila since 1969. The rebels’ fighting force is currently estimated to be around 5,000 people, down from a high of 20,000 spread across the archipelago nation at the height of the insurgency in the early 1980s.
The government ordered intensified operations against the New People’s Army, or N.P.A., after the group announced this month that it was reviving its urban hit squads to target officials who it said had committed “crimes against the public.”
The N.P.A. said it was planning to form “partisan teams” to carry out targeted killings in cities, in reference to its Special Partisan Units, whose reign of terror gripped the nation in the 1980s during the corrupt regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The hit squad’s most famous victim was Col. James Rowe, a U.S. military adviser and prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict, who was killed in an ambush by an N.P.A. hit squad north of Manila in 1989.
Saturday’s crash came a day after Gen. Gilbert Gapay, chief of the Philippine Armed Forces, ordered commanders to intensify efforts at dismantling guerrilla movements and finally end the insurgency this year.
“All remaining communist guerrilla fronts shall be simultaneously addressed and defeated toward the end of 2021,” General Gapay said on Friday, adding that continuous pressure on the ground had weakened rebel forces.
He said more than 50 guerrilla groups remained scattered across the country but were on the “brink of collapse.”
“We have significantly decimated these groups,” he said, adding that he hoped for complete eradication in the first months of 2021.
The crash on Saturday was not the first for a Huey used by the military. In November, a soldier died when a helicopter of the same make crashed while it was evacuating troops wounded in a battle with Islamic militants.