MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Police killed a central Philippine city mayor and two of his aides, while two of the police officers were killed in the latest deadly violence involving the police force, officials said Tuesday.
“I can only assume that this was a mistaken encounter,” Brig. Gen. Ronaldo de Jesus, a regional police commander, said based on initial police reports.
The police were on routine patrol when they were fired upon Monday afternoon by security aides of Catbalogan City Mayor Ronaldo Aquino, who was being driven in a van in eastern Samar province, according to de Jesus.
The police returned fire and killed Aquino and two of his aides, including a police escort, while the mayor’s aides killed two of the police officers, who were driving behind the mayor’s van, he said.
“They had suspicions and opened fire on our policemen and our forces retaliated,” de Jesus told reporters, adding that an investigation was underway.
Video from shortly after the attack showed residents milling around Aquino’s white van, its windows shattered by gunfire and the van peppered with bullet holes. Spent bullet shells littered the scene of the attack in the middle of a bridge.
Rep. Edgar Sarmiento, a friend of Aquino, said the mayor, who was on his way to the birthday celebration of his child, may have been targeted, but de Jesus said the police were not after Aquino and were only on routine patrol.
“It was well-planned. After the van stopped it was immediately hit. It’s good they were able to retaliate,” Sarmiento told DZMM radio in tears. “We’re in a pandemic and things like this still happen.”
Several mayors and provincial officials linked to illegal drugs have been ambushed and killed by unknown gunmen under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a deadly anti-drug crackdown that has alarmed Western governments and human rights watchdogs. But Sarmiento said Aquino had no involvement in the illegal drug trade.
Monday’s deadly violence was the latest that involved the police force.
Over the weekend, police, backed by military forces, killed nine people in raids against suspected communist insurgents in four provinces near Manila. Police officials said the suspects opened fire first, but left-wing groups say those killed were unarmed activists.
The Department of Justice was ordered to investigate the deaths, which have been condemned by left-wing and human rights groups.
Two weeks ago, police and agents of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency armed with assault rifles and pistols engaged in a gunbattle outside a shopping mall in an apparent mistaken clash while each side was undertaking separate anti-drug operations. Three law enforcers and a government drug informant were killed in the heavy exchange of fire.
Many people were trapped in the nearby mall by the gunbattle that closed the mall, jammed traffic and was witnessed by many residents, commuters and shoppers.