MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte operated a "death squad" while mayor of Davao city, giving cash and orders for police and assassins to murder criminals, according to a former policeman who said he was involved in the clandestine killings.
In remarks contradicting his earlier denial of the existence of such a "death squad", Arturo Lascanas said he was one of the ringleaders of the group that began operating when Duterte became mayor of the southern Philippine city in 1988.
Duterte has repeatedly denied involvement in vigilantism or summary executions, either as president or during his total of 22 years as Davao mayor. His police chief has denied there was ever a death squad in Davao, describing it as fiction created by the media.
On Monday (Feb 20), Lascanas asserted that the Davao death squad was no myth and he was one of those who carried out secret killings of drug dealers and criminals at Duterte's behest.
"It is true, the Davao death squad, or DDS, really exists,"Lascanas told reporters at the Senate in Manila, the capital. "When Mayor Duterte sat down as mayor for the first time, we started what is called 'salvaging' of people, these people are suspects committing crime in Davao."
He added: "We implemented the personal orders of Mayor Duterte to us."
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Lascanas' claims were politically motivated and allegations of extrajudicial killings ordered by Duterte had been proved false by numerous independent agencies.
"Our people are aware that this character assassination is nothing but vicious politics orchestrated by sectors affected by the reforms initiated by the Duterte administration," Andanar told CNN Philippines.
Lascanas is the second man to go public with explosive claims of involvement in illegal killings allegedly ordered by Duterte, the hugely popular president nicknamed "the Punisher", whose ruthless approach to tackling crime has won public approval.
Lascanas' comments differed from those he made at a Senate hearing in October, however, when he denied the existence of a Davao death squad.
'PROMISED TO GOD'
He said he had decided his "obedience and loyalty" to Duterte must end and had promised God that he would confess.
His account was similar to that of hit man Edgar Matobato, who testified in September to watching Duterte shoot a man dead and give orders for police to kill criminals.
Human rights groups have documented about 1,400 suspicious killings in Davao during Duterte's time as mayor and critics say the war on drugs he unleashed as president has the same hallmarks.
More than 7,700 people have been killed in the latest crackdown, some 2,500 in what police say are shootouts during raids and sting operations.
Many of the rest are under investigation and activists believe large numbers of extrajudicial killings have taken place.
Lascanas said death squad members in Davao received 20,000 to 100,000 pesos (S$563-2,816) per hit, depending on the target's value. Some members, he said, were former Communist rebels.
He confessed to the unsolved murder of a Davao radio show host who was staunchly critical of Duterte.
Lascanas detailed his involvement in the bombing of a mosque and the killing of the family of a suspected kidnapper. The victims included a pregnant woman, a small boy and an elderly person.
Both attacks were ordered by Duterte, he said.
"This is how it began, all the killings we did in Davao, whether we bury or we throw in the sea, we are being paid by Mayor Duterte," he said.