MANILA – The military on Monday said it will deploy intelligence units to hunt down the New People’s Army, not "death squads" as pushed by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte last week threatened to unleash hit men against the NPA's Special Partisan Unit or "sparrows," who the communists deployed to kill police during the 1970s and 1980s rule of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
"We can have yung tinatawag nating 'yung counter sparrow unit na ano, mission intelligence… as what we have done also in Basilan, wherein there is also spate of killing being perpetrated," military chief General Carlito Galvez told reporters.
Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, denied the existence of "sparrow" assassins and said Duterte was using it as a pretext to kill suspected rebels.
Sison likened it to Duterte's anti-drug campaign, in which thousands of people have been killed. Activists say many appear to have been executions, but police deny that and say all were shootouts with drug dealers.
Duterte has been dogged by accusations that he ran a death squad when he was mayor of Davao City and oversaw a fierce crackdown on crime. He denied the allegations.
Leftist group Bayan said in a statement Duterte was "inciting a killing spree against government critics, human rights defenders and just about everyone else tagged by the government as 'Red'."
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, among his staunchest critics, said Duterte was insecure about his hold on power.
"He wants to strike fear again into the hearts and minds of the Filipinos by forewarning that there would be another round of killings," said Trillanes, a former rebel soldier.
"Fear is his only way to keep people in check."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte's hit squad idea would be considered, but it would need clear operational guidelines and oversight.
"We will study it very closely," he said. "There is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations."
With reports from Reuters; Jorge Cariño, ABS-CBN News