MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine policemen fatally shot four army soldiers, including two officers, who were trying to locate a suicide bomber Monday but were suspected of being criminals by the police in the volatile south, officials said.
Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said he asked the National Bureau of Investigation, Manila’s version of the FBI, to investigate the killings in Jolo town due to conflicting accounts of what happened. But Sobejana stood by the slain officers, saying they “were doing their job.”
“Whatever is the reason, they were shot by the policemen,” Sobejana told reporters. “We’re having that investigated.”
An initial military report seen by The Associated Press and accounts by two army officers said the four army intelligence men, including a major and a captain, were trying to locate a suspected foreign suicide bomber who was believed to be with local Abu Sayyaf militants when their SUV was stopped at a police checkpoint in Jolo.
They identified themselves to the policemen but were later fired upon by them, the military report said.
An army officer with knowledge of what happened told the AP that after identifying themselves to the police, the army intelligence men left but were tailed by a van of policemen. Sensing that they were being followed, the soldiers stopped their SUV and one of the officers got out with both of his hands up, apparently to indicate he had no hostile intent.
But the policemen opened fire and killed the four soldiers for still unexplained reasons, said the army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of what transpired. When the police left, other army officers arrived and found their colleagues already dead, the army officer said.
An initial police report, however, had a different account.
It said Jolo policemen were on patrol with anti-illegal drug agents in the town’s Bus-Bus village when they spotted the SUV with “four armed male persons,” whom they stopped. The four were directed to drive to the Jolo police station “for verification” but when they arrived there, “the said persons fled,” the police report said.
Police chased the four, who got out and pointed their firearms toward the policemen, the report said. “Before they could pull the trigger, the Philippine National Police personnel were able to shoot them in defense,” sparking an exchange of shots that killed “the four suspects,” the police report said.
Thousands of troops have been deployed to the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, where Jolo is the capital, in recent years on orders of President Rodrigo Duterte to try to finish off the Abu Sayyaf. The group of a few hundred fighters has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the Philippines for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
The Abu Sayyaf, which includes factions aligned with the Islamic State group, has been weakened considerably by battle setbacks, surrenders and infighting but remains a national security threat.