MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- More than 200 heavily armed communist rebels stormed three mining companies in a weakly secured southern Philippine region Monday, burning heavy equipment, disarming guards and briefly holding several people in their biggest attack this year, officials said.
The New People's Army guerrillas then ambushed a convoy led by a police general that was responding to the attack in remote Claver township in Surigao del Norte province but the policemen fought back without incurring any casualties, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said.
One of the companies that came under attack, Taganito Mining Corp., was forced to temporarily halt operations because of the magnitude of the assault. The company is owned by Nickel Asia Corp., the Philippines' biggest nickel producer, which is partly owned by Japan's Sumitomo Corp.
Presidential Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. said all foreign nationals at the work sites were safe, and Filipino employees are "now out of harm's way."
"This incident is an isolated case and the business community and the public can be assured that the government is on top of the situation," Ochoa said in a statement.
The attackers will be "brought to justice," he said.
However, Robredo said security officials were still trying to verify reports that two to three guards working for private security companies had been killed while resisting the communist rebel assault.
"This is their biggest attack in terms of damage and numbers," Robredo told The Associated Press by telephone from Surigao del Norte, where he flew to help local officials deal with the crisis.
"It was a show of force," Robredo said, adding that the rebels took advantage of the limited presence of army and police personnel in the remote region.
Army troops assigned to the area were undergoing training elsewhere and police forces were involved in counterinsurgency operations in another area of Surigao, an impoverished province of about 500,000 people about 430 miles (700 kilometers) southeast of Manila.
The Maoist rebels, estimated to number more than 4,000, have pressed on with attacks despite the resumption of peace talks earlier this year under President Benigno Aquino III aimed at settling one of Asia's longest-running communist insurgencies. Negotiations on ending the 42-year-old rebellion stalled in June but both sides are working to resume talks, which are brokered by Norway.
The New People's Army, listed as a terrorist group by Washington, has repeatedly threatened to attack foreign and Filipino mining companies, accusing them of exploiting the Southeast Asian nation's resources and labor force.
The military has said rebel attacks on mining firms are part of long-standing extortion attempts.
The large number of guerrillas descended on the mining compounds before noon, where they disarmed guards and herded employees aside before setting heavy equipment and other items ablaze. They withdrew after about five hours and were being chased by helicopter-backed government troops, Robredo said.
Armed with automatic rifles and grenades, the rebels first swooped down on the vast Taganito mining compound, where they took custody of guards and company officials, regional police Chief Reynaldo Rafal said.
Japanese staffers of the company were in another building in the compound during the assault and were all safe. Several Filipino employees were herded outside the compound and given a lecture by the rebels before being allowed to go unharmed, Robredo said.
Almost simultaneously, the rebels also raided the nearby Platinum Group Metals Corp. and the THPAL mineral processing plant, police and military officials said.
They burned several dump trucks, backhoes, mining barges, computers and at least two guest houses in the three compounds, police said.
Rafal's convoy came under rebel attack on the way to the area but the policemen returned fire and repelled the assault. Two air force helicopters backed up troops pursuing the guerrillas, officials said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.