Police killed at least 14 people on Saturday, eight of them in one city alone, in what authorities initially described as a massive law-enforcement activity but later admitted were simultaneous operations against communist guerrillas in the central Philippines.
A dozen others with suspected links to the New People’s Army (NPA) were arrested, police said.
“They were suspected of being the ones who attacked and killed policemen and soldiers here,” Col. Raul Tacaca, police provincial director, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, referring to the slain men. Tacaca did not elaborate.
The police operations took place a day after the NPA, armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, marked its 50th founding anniversary Friday.
Local police spokesman Edelberito Euraoba said eight people were killed during gunfights in Canlaon city, four in the town of Manjuyod and two in Santa Catalina town in Negros Oriental province.
Police officers were serving arrest and search warrants on the suspects when they were fired upon, Euraoba told reporters.
Among those slain were alleged leaders of local peasant organizations that authorities believe were “legal fronts” of the NPA.
Tacaca said in a statement that the targets of the operations were believed to be responsible for attacks on police and military personnel, among other offenses.
“In the course of the operation, casualties are imperative to neutralize the threats to lives and properties. However, preservation of human rights, including that of the subjects for operations, are properly observed,” Tacaca said.
He said that the operations were launched in response to growing incidents of violence, including alleged harassment of government forces in Negros, and was also aimed at ending what he termed as “terroristic activities.”
But human rights groups accused the police of targeting leaders of legal organizations, pointing out that among those slain was Edgardo Avelino, leader of a local farmers union and his brother, Ismael, who was also an activist. They said the victims were local farmers, not outlaws.
“This is unconscionable. We strongly demand and immediate and independent investigation on this incident,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights group Karapatan, or the Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights.
Palabay emphasized that the Negros region has been a “consistent target” of escalating police and military operations. Similar operations in December also in the region left six dead.
“As we condole with the families of those killed, we join our voices in the call for justice and accountability for these heinous crimes perpetrated by the government,” she said.
A woman described as Edgardo’s wife told local radio station Brigada News-San Carlos that 10 men barged into their home and shot her husband dead. The men had claimed to have a search warrant, a document that she said they never saw.