A mayor on Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's wanted list for alleged drugs links was killed along with nine of his guards in a shootout on Friday, police said, as a new phase of a bloody narcotics crackdown zeroed-in on high profile targets.
The 10 men succumbed to their wounds en route to hospital, police said, having opened fire on officers who tried to stop their two vehicles at a checkpoint in Duterte's troubled home province of Mindanao before dawn.
‘It was a legitimate police operation,’ said Bernard Tayong of the North Cotabato police office, adding that no officers were hurt but a police vehicle was riddled with bullets.
‘We have information the mayor and his men were transporting drugs so we tried to intercept them but they chose to shoot it out,’ he told reporters.
The killing of Samsudin Dimaukom, a powerful mayor, took place far from his predominantly Muslim town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan.
It came as police shift tactics in the controversial war on drugs by focusing on politicians, government officials, celebrities and high-ranking army and police suspected of involvement in the trade.
The new plan, called ‘project double barrel alpha’, was reported exclusively by Reuters on Monday and aims to increase arrests and reduce the bloodshed in a campaign that has claimed more than 2,300 lives since Duterte took office on June 30.
Duterte won a May election on the promises of killing criminals and campaigned under the logo of a clenched fist.
Duterte returned from a visit to Japan late on Thursday and during a news conference waved a thick book he said contained names of officials suspected of drug links. The book contains about 3,000 names.
‘I do not want to make this public because it will just make the Filipino cry,’ he said.
Of those killed in the anti-drugs campaign, more than 1,600 died during police operations, a toll that has drawn international concern about extrajudicial killings.
Duterte has fiercely defended the campaign and has repeatedly lashed out at his critics.
A recent poll showed public unease over the crackdown, with 94 per cent of respondents saying it was important that police take suspects alive.
Police investigators said seven guns, including an Armalite rifle and 13 small packs of suspected methamphetamines were recovered from the mayor's vehicle after Friday's firefight.
The mayor's wife, who is also the town's vice mayor, is also on Duterte's wanted list.
National police spokesman Dionardo Carlos told Reuters on Thursday the drugs war had been expanded to go beyond poorer areas where low-level peddlers operate.
New targets were transport networks, show business circles, nightclubs and wealthier neighbourhoods to root out drugs like cocaine and ecstasy.
Carlos denied there was a deliberate sanctioning of extrajudicial killings. He said fatalities occurred when suspects refused to surrender and police were keen to avoid violence.
‘That's why we are shifting to Alpha,’ he added.
Since late June, 750,000 drug users had surrendered, some 30,000 suspects were arrested. Of the ‘high value’ targets, 201 had surrendered, 66 were arrested and 14 were killed.
He said 150,000 police had been drug tested and 164 gave positive results and would be dismissed.
Police would soon receive a large consignment of body armour, Carlos said, adding instructions were being given ‘to make sure you are not giving (drug suspects) the chance to put your lives in danger’.