By Jason Gutierrez

MANILA, December 15, 2010 (AFP) – Communist rebels waging a decades-long insurgency in the Philippines killed 10 soldiers as they returned to camp to observe a Christmas truce ahead of planned peace talks, the military said.

A nine-year-old boy who was taking a bath in a river meters away was also killed by a gunshot wound to the head, apparently sustained during the crossfire, the military said Wednesday.

Tuesday’s attack by the New People’s Army (NPA) on the central island of Samar came 48 hours before an 18-day ceasefire was to take effect, and as the opposing sides were preparing for a resumption of peace talks in February.

“They took advantage of the announcement of the ceasefire. The soldiers were pulling out of the area and they were treacherously ambushed,” the soldiers’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Vestuir, told AFP.

“We will obey the suspension of military operations order, but our troops are now on pursuit operations with the help of police.”

Vestuir said two other soldiers were wounded in Tuesday’s ambush, which took place as the troops were hiking in mountainous terrain to their barracks.

The rebels planted landmines along the route, and fired at the soldiers from a hilly vantage point, according to Vestuir.

Hours later NPA rebels launched a similar ambush on a convoy of soldiers in another central Philippine province, he said, but there were no casualties in that incident.

The NPA launched its uprising in 1969, and thousands of people have been killed during what has become one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.

However Tuesday’s attack in Samar was the deadliest this year by the NPA, which has about 5,000 armed followers whose strongholds are almost exclusively impoverished rural areas.

It occurred on the same day that President Benigno Aquino’s government announced it hoped to end the communist insurgency within three years.

Chief government negotiator Alexander Padilla told reporters on Tuesday that neither side could end the conflict by force, and said the focus should be on negotiations.

“We hope that everything will be finished in three years because we want the administration to implement the settlement,” Padilla said.

“If we cannot have an agreement in this administration, we might find it hard to have it in the next.”

Padilla’s comments continued a build-up of expectations from both sides after they agreed early this month to restart peace talks in Norway in February.

The last time the two sides met for peace talks was in 2004.

The peace process was suspended in 2005, prompting Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, to say she intended to “crush” the rebellion by the time she stepped down as president.

However she ended her presidency in June this year with the NPA still a powerful force.

It was unclear how Tuesday’s attacks would affect the planned peace talks, with the government offering no immediate comment.

Aldo Gonzales, a staff member of the communists’ front organization the National Democratic Front, told AFP by telephone from its office in the Netherlands that it had not received news of the ambush.

In the previous most deadly reported NPA attack this year, eight policemen and a local official were killed, also in Samar, in August.