MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Philippine police backed by military forces killed nine people over the weekend in a series of raids against suspected communist insurgents, with authorities saying the suspects opened fire first. Others, however, said those killed were unarmed activists.

Police said Monday that all of those killed were associated with “communist terrorist groups” and had shot at officers while being served search warrants. The suspects died while being taken to hospitals, police said.

Police served at least 24 search warrants, mostly for illegal firearms and explosives, in a number of locations in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas and Rizal provinces over the weekend. Police said six other suspects were arrested and nine escaped.

The killings immediately drew condemnations by left-wing and rights groups, which demanded an independent investigation into what some described as executions of legitimate activists being carried out under the guise of a crackdown on rebels who have been fighting a Marxist insurgency for the past five decades.

The Department of Justice will investigate the deaths, officials said.

Cristina Palabay of the rights group Karapatan said many of those killed belonged to political and workers’ groups. She said one slain couple who led a fishermen’s group was gunned down by police as their 10-year-old son watched while hiding under a bed.

National police chief Gen. Debold Sinas denied the suspects were victims of extra-judicial killings.

“Those were legitimate operations because they were covered by search warrants,” Sinas told reporters.

Renato Reyes of the left-wing alliance Bayan said the Supreme Court should look into what he said was an alarming pattern of authorities providing questionable or fabricated details about suspected criminals to judges, who then issue warrants.

“A policeman makes a wild allegation that you are in possession of just one hand grenade and a judge will sign a search warrant that could lead to your arrest or death,” Reyes said in a statement. “That is how bad things have become. Search warrants have been weaponized to go after unarmed activists.”

Palabay blamed President Rodrigo Duterte, who she said encouraged military and police personnel to commit acts with impunity through his regular televised threats to kill insurgents and drug traffickers.

Duterte said in a speech in a counterinsurgency meeting on Friday that he told the military and police that “during encounters, if the enemy is holding a gun, kill them. Kill them right away. Ignore human rights. That is my order. I’ll be the one to go to jail. No problem.”

Palabay accused an army general, Antonio Parlade Jr., who leads military forces in the region where most of the weekend raids were staged, of falsely linking many activists to armed communist groups. Parlade has denied such allegations.

Last month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana fired the military’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence for publicly releasing an erroneous list of alleged communist guerrillas. The intelligence chief’s “negligence only shows a lackadaisical attitude towards his job resulting to confusion and damage to reputation,” Lorenzana said.

The military has intensified its campaign against New People’s Army guerrillas and what it tags as their supporters as Duterte winds up his six-year presidency. The military has set a target of ending the insurgency, one of the world’s longest running, before Duterte’s term ends in June 2022.

Duterte initiated peace talks brokered by Norway when he took office in mid-2016 and appointed left-wing activist leaders to Cabinet posts to foster the negotiations. But the talks collapsed after each side accused the other of continuing attacks while efforts to end the rural-based rebellion were underway.

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