BACOLOD, Philippines (AP) — Philippine police said Sunday that 14 suspected communist rebels were killed after they opened fire during raids in a central province, but rights groups countered that the men were farmers and the latest victims of extrajudicial killings.
Dozens of police, backed by army troops, were to conduct court-authorized home searches Saturday in a city and two towns in Negros Oriental province when the 14 men violently fought back, police officials said. A police officer was shot in the leg and wounded in the anti-insurgency and criminality sweep that also led to the arrests of 15 other suspects, they said.
Regional police chief Debold Sinas said six suspected insurgents and rebel supporters escaped. Law enforcers seized three shotguns, 25 pistols, a homemade rifle, three grenades, ammunition and rebel documents in the simultaneous raids in Canlaon city, where eight suspects were gunned down, and the towns of Manjuyod and Santa Catalina, where the rest were killed in the reported gunbattles.
"There were 14 suspects that engaged the raiders in a shootout during the implementation of the search warrants resulting to their deaths," Sinas told the national police chief in a report.
Human rights and farmers' groups condemned the killings of the men they said were farmers, including two village chiefs, and called for an independent investigation.
The Federation of Agricultural Workers cited the wife of one of the dead men, Edgardo Avelino, as saying that 10 men in uniform forcibly entered their home at around midnight saying they would serve an arrest warrant. Moments after, the men reportedly gunned down Avelino and his brother, Ismael, the farmers' group said.
A Roman Catholic bishop, Gerardo Alminaza, said among those killed was a church minister known for his good character and some members of a church group. Atrocities committed by law enforcers, Alminaza said, "will make you best recruiters for the underground movement."
"The appalling conduct of these 'police operations' obviously aims to make peasants, activists and other ordinary citizens of Negros to cower in fear, surrender their rights, and accept the wave of terror under the de facto martial law," the Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates said.
The group said six farmers were killed and more than 50 others arrested in similar police raids in December in Guihulngan city in Negros Oriental, which lies on a sugar-producing agricultural island long known for its gaping divide between the poor and wealthy landowning families.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the country's south in 2017 to contain a deadly siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants and other insurgents. Although Negros Oriental lies outside the south, it is in a region about 590 kilometers (366 miles) south of Manila where military and police forces have intensified counterinsurgency raids in recent years.
Police denied the 14 men killed in Saturday's raids were victims of extrajudicial killings. Aside from unlicensed firearms, police were looking for suspected New People's Army guerrillas involved in a failed attack on a Canlaon city police station this month and other assaults on police officers, Sinas said.
Communist guerrillas have waged a rural rebellion in the Philippines for half a century, one of Asia's longest. The violence has left about 40,000 combatants and civilians dead. It also has stunted economic development, especially in the countryside, where the military says about 3,500 insurgents are still active.