Army technical sergeant Benjamin Cabantug has been wounded twice while fighting rebels over the past 30 years. Now he's still fighting the same war, but with a different weapon - a broom. On Saturday a couple of weeks ago he was busy cleaning away refuse outside the gates of a state-run children's school in the village of Lupang Pangako. Sergeant Cabantug relished his latest assignment at Lupang Pangako, a shanty village beside the garbage mountain of Payatas in Quezon City, in metropolitan Manila. The basing of 80 to 100 soldiers there over the past two years has meant communist New People's Army (NPA) rebels rebels rarely descend into Lupang Pangako from caves in the nearby hills of Montalban where they still lurk. For the first time, Sergeant Cabantug said, he was finding many of the 19,000 residents welcoming. 'They know that soldiers are usually up in the mountains. [This time] they probably feel that soldiers like me are not just for war but for the people,' he said. His comments are supported by Payatas community leaders Roger Dolores and Juanito Artiola, who said that at first they feared the troops. But when they saw how petty crime dropped, they asked the army to keep the soldiers there over the objections of left-wing groups. The efforts of Sergeant Cabantug represent a new front in the government's campaign to stamp out a communist rebellion that pre-dates the birth of the Philippine Republic in 1946. Now the military claims the end is near. Armed forces chief of staff General Alexander Yano told the South China Morning Post that by 2010, the military would reduce the insurgents 'to irrelevance'. 'They cannot be reduced to zero,' he said, 'but just like any other irritants in society, they will just be marginalised to the point where the police can effectively deal with them and they're no longer a national security concern.' Satur Ocampo, who represents the left-wing Bayan Muna (Country First) party in Congress, dismisses the claim. 'They have been saying that. I doubt it,' said the lawmaker, who security officials accuse of channelling tax revenues to the NPA, a charge he denies and of which authorities have found no proof. The NPA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Both are designated terrorist groups by the US and the European Union. Mr Ocampo said earlier presidents had predicted the rebels' demise. On the contrary, he said, the CPP recently stated that 'it has been able to regain its [NPA] strength similar to the period prior to its peak in 1987'. He refused to give figures to back his claim. Mr Ocampo also said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was 'running out of time' and the rebels would endure simply 'by sticking it out [as] remnants always grow'. 'There are periods of unfavourable factors, mistakes by revolutionary forces when they suffer major losses,' he said. 'Then they recover. That's how it has been historically over 40 years and for as long as the government has not addressed the root causes of poverty, injustice, abuses of power and the land question, which is interlinked with the revolutionary movement.' Mr Ocampo, a former business journalist, has grounds for optimism. Based on military estimates, the CPP-NPA started with only 60 armed men in 1969 after breaking away from the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas and adopting the Maoist concept of peasant struggle. The NPA had 25,000 fighters in 1987, but dropped to 6,000 men in 1995, mainly due to an internal split. Then its numbers crept upwards to 11,930 when Mrs Arroyo assumed power in 2001. General Yano said successful military operations had whittled the NPA down to 5,600 men with 5,500 firearms. Such accuracy in rebel counting has always mystified Peter Wallace, an Australian risk analyst and business consultant based in Manila. 'The sense I get nonetheless is that the NPA is in decline and less organised,' he said. 'From a businessman's viewpoint, we don't see it as much as a threat.' Government critics question whether the communist movement, badly splintered and scattered, is really the threat the government makes it out to be, or whether it has become a convenient enemy for the government to target. A top Filipino executive once jailed for being an NPA cadre said the group was running out of steam ideologically, due to events such as the break-up of the Soviet Union and China's embrace of capitalism. But he said the Philippines had 'a government that seems unable to get out of feudal practices'. 'That's the Philippine paradox,' the executive said. 'We are in a time warp, in which the protagonists are locked in a dance where so much has changed and at the same time so much has remained the same.' Roland Simbulan, a professor of development economics at the University of the Philippines, said when the NPA shed about 20,000 members, many went to form NGOs. He said: 'The best way to solve armed insurgency and rebellion was to guarantee the safety of those willing to work for peaceful reforms, even if they openly advocate the left's agenda.' Mr Ocampo's youngest son, Antonio, has opted to lead an NGO fighting for homeowners' rights, although he shares his father's view that 'if you feel your government is oppressive, you have the right to fight back'. But he said: 'I'd rather go the hard, long and difficult route of trying to make changes above ground than [using] armed struggle.' He also had advice for CPP founding chairman Jose Maria Sison, whom the government accuses of calling the shots from his home in the Netherlands. 'If ever he wants to be relevant to whatever is happening, he should be more in touch and more accepting of what's happening. He should listen more to people rather than expect them to listen to him.' Whatever their numbers, the 120,000-strong armed forces remain wary of leftist organisations. The military claims to have found a magic bullet in plans to launch a National Development Support Command (NDSC) in September. The head of the command, Brigadier General Jaime Buenaflor, described the NDSC as 'a super-agency ... to orchestrate [and] integrate' an anti-communist charm offensive. He said previous programmes had failed to make an impact because efforts had been fragmented. The new command has a budget of 1 billion pesos (HK$175.6 million) and is backed by 300 officers and 3,000 soldiers. Its manpower includes 550 men deployed in metropolitan Manila, of which nearly 100 are stationed at Lupang Pangako. The new unit is the brainchild of former armed forces chief General Hermogenes Esperon. Based on a similar scheme implemented in Thailand, the programme extends troops' activities beyond soldiering. Troops under the new command build roads and clean canals, and engage in mundane chores such as cleaning and repairing school classrooms, giving people free haircuts, teaching adults to read and sometimes serving as a liaison between villagers and state agencies. General Yano said the approach was prompted by the complex nature of the communist insurgency. Aside from the NPA, the communist movement had two unarmed components - the CPP, which acts as the leadership and the National Democratic Front (NDF) - which provides multi-sectoral, civilian support and has NGO affiliates. 'Even if we concentrate on neutralising the red fighters in the countryside, if there is a continuous flow from urban areas of manpower, financial and technical support, we will never end the problem,' he said. He has ordered his troops to kill the enemy with 'kindness' and 'immunise' the population from their influence. 'It's not targeting [them] by physical elimination. We are trying to win them over to our side,' he said. To persuade a highly sceptical public that he would not tolerate extrajudicial killings, General Yano handed over a soldier accused of murdering a peasant leader to a justice department probe. 'We [the armed forces] are not above the law,' he said. 'If the law enforcement agencies say there is enough evidence to point to one or any of our soldiers [who may have] committed such crimes, then it is incumbent upon that individual, even the chief of staff, to surrender him to the authorities.' General Buenaflor's enthusiasm for this new command sprang from his experience as a brigade commander in one rebel-infested town three years ago. His men built a farm-to-market road that cut the cost of carting produce from 200 pesos to a mere 15 pesos. The village captain 'embraces me whenever we meet', he said. The programme has scored an early success in Lupang Pangako. In February, Marine Major General Benjamin Dolorfino promised to give Libertad Hizon and other women sewing machines with which to make rags, even though he was told she was a former NPA rebel. The following day, the machines arrived along with 500kg of cloth. 'I couldn't believe it,' she said. Since then, she has become one of the soldiers' most vocal supporters. If the NPA has dedicated cadres, the military also has the likes of Lieutenant Colonel Buenaventura Pascual, who follows up projects even at weekends. The 47-year-old spokesman for the NDSC unit in Metro Manila has made it his personal mission to dissuade students from joining left-wing groups because 'once they become full-time activists, they are lured into becoming full time NPAs. That's what I've seen.' His devotion to ending the conflict seems partly personal. When he was a young lieutenant, his squad ambushed NPA rebels, and among those they killed were a teenage boy and girl. Just before dying, the girl whispered into his ear. He said it was only later he realised she was telling him her real name and those of her parents, but he could not remember what she had said.