Philippine police backed by military forces killed nine people over the weekend in a series of raids against alleged communist insurgents.
Authorities claimed the suspects opened fire first but others said those killed were unarmed activists, reports the Associated Press.
Police said on Monday that all of those killed were associated with “communist terrorist groups” and had shot at officers while being served with search warrants. The suspects died while being taken to hospitals, police said.
Catholic leaders joined condemnation of the weekend killings but President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said orders to kill rebels are legal as long as they are armed.
Reuters is reporting that Human Rights groups are outraged over the deaths of what they say were legitimate activists who were killed under the guise of counter-insurgency operations, which came two days after Duterte told security forces they could kill “rebels” if they were holding a gun and to “ignore human rights”.
“The president’s ‘kill, kill, kill’ order is legal because it was directed at armed rebels,” his spokesman Harry Roque said in a briefing, adding the government would still investigate the incident.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, an influential church group, in a statement, denounced the use of what it called unnecessary force and violence during “Bloody Sunday”.
Speaking of the killings, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade, head of an anti-rebel task force, told Reuters the raids were “legitimate law enforcement operations”, and authorities had search warrants for firearms and explosives.
Activists said the raids were reminiscent of police operations which killed thousands of people as part of Duterte’s signature war on drugs, in which police always claimed the victims were armed and had resisted arrest.
Among those killed at the weekend was a coordinator of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or New Patriotic Alliance. The left-wing group has called for an end to “red-tagging”, the practice of labelling opponents communists or terrorists to justify targeting them, which dates back to the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Human Rights Watch said the government’s counter-insurgency campaign no longer makes a distinction between armed rebels and non-combatant activists, labour leaders, and rights defenders.
Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has seen his efforts to forge peace with Maoist rebels derailed repeatedly, prompting frequent outbursts and threats to wipe them out.