Rights groups dispute Philippine police account of clash that killed 14 suspected rebels

MANILA (REUTERS) - Fourteen suspected communist rebels were killed in a clash with security forces in the central Philippines, police said on Sunday (March 31), but human rights activists said those who died were farmers.

The police, backed by soldiers, were carrying out house searches in Negros Oriental province on Saturday related to a criminal investigation when the 14 men exchanged fire with officers, the Philippine National Police said.

"We are certain they fought back because the police will not use force if there is no threat to their lives," police spokesman Bernard Banac said in an interview with DWIZ radio.

Grenades, pistols, rifles and assorted live ammunition were recovered during the operation, police said.

However, human rights groups condemned the police actions.

Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates said the police and military in Negros were "hard-pressed to meet their quotas" in their fight to end the communist insurgency.

Because of that, "they target ordinary farmers and civilians whom they tag as supporters or actual rebel combatants", the group said in a statement.

Manila had been holding on-again, off-again talks with Maoist rebels, brokered by Norway, since 1986 but President Rodrigo Duterte ended negotiations in 2017 due to rebel attacks and taxation.

The leftist Bayan (Nation) group called on Sunday for an investigation into the killings, which it said were reminiscent of the government's bloody anti-narcotics operations.

"The operations were carried out under the cover of midnight and all the victims, quite unbelievably, were accused of shooting back at the police," Bayan said in a statement.

Police say they have killed around 5,000 drug suspects who were violently resisting arrest since the launch of the war on drugs nearly three years ago.

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