ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — The Philippine president flew to the country’s volatile south on Friday to plead with military forces not to retaliate following the fatal police shootings of four soldiers, including two officers, in violence the army chief called “a rubout.”
President Rodrigo Duterte pledged an impartial government investigation of Monday’s violence in southern Jolo town and promised in a late-night address to military commanders, including army generals, that anyone found guilty will be punished.
“Do you want to kill five to six policemen there in the station? What good will it do?” said the blunt-speaking Duterte, who wore a face mask to protect against the coronavirus.
Duterte asked commanders to ensure their forces remain calm and added that police, like government troops, perform a vital role in maintaining law and order.
He cited a Muslim rebel leader, Nur Misuari, whom he appointed as a special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference despite his involvement in past rebel attacks that killed many soldiers.
“Why is he there?” Duterte asked. “That’s the reality of it all. You have enemies that you cannot kill because you can still use them. … We need the police out there.”
An initial police report said the four soldiers were killed in a “misencounter” with a group of police officers. The army has said its two officers and two enlisted men were on a mission against Abu Sayyaf militants, including suspected suicide bombers, when they were flagged down and later fatally shot by police even after the soldiers identified themselves.
Army chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay angrily condemned the police report as a fabrication, citing security videos and witnesses accounts which he said showed that there was no exchange of fire. The police later changed the term “misencounter” to a “shooting incident.”
“It was murder. … It was a rubout,” Gapay said Tuesday at a Manila airbase where the bodies of three of the soldiers were flown.
The initial police report said Jolo police were on patrol with drug agents in the town’s Bus-Bus village when they spotted an SUV with “four armed male persons” whom they stopped. The four were directed to drive to the Jolo police station “for verification” but when they arrived there, “the said persons fled,” the report said.
An army officer with knowledge of what happened told The Associated Press that while being tailed by a van of policemen, the soldiers stopped and one of the officers, Maj. Marvin Indammog, got out of the SUV with his hands up, apparently to indicate he had no hostile intent.
But the police opened fire and killed the four soldiers, who were in casual clothes, for still unexplained reasons, said the army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of what transpired.
Indammog’s team was helping track the militants with surveillance equipment in a covert operation when he and his men were gunned down, the officer said.
The violence reflects the often-complicated conditions under which the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and its allied foreign and local militants has been waged by the military, with backing from the police, for about three decades. The on and off offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is listed by the U.S. and the Philippines as a terrorist group, but it remains a national security threat.