MANILA Philippine troops will only provide back-up in the war on drugs and not patrol the streets or play any kind of leading role, the head of an anti-narcotics agency that has been given charge of the campaign said on Monday.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte suspended the national police from the anti-drugs war that has killed over 7,600 people in seven months after a South Korean businessman was kidnapped and killed by members of a police drugs squad.
He said the army would be inducted into the drugs war, creating unease in a country that endured a decade of martial law from the early 1970s and where memories of campaigns to restore democracy and protect human rights are fresh in the minds of many people.
However, Duterte handed charge of the anti-drugs campaign to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
"They (troops) will be in support of PDEA agents," the agency's director general, Isidro Lapena, said in an interview. "For example, if the target is in an area where there are armed groups, then we will be needing the armed forces."
Lapena stressed the military would not be on patrol duty or lead their own operations. Troops selected for a joint task force with the PDEA would attend orientation programmes and would likely only be on stand-by for drug operations when needed.
Of the people killed in the war on drugs, about 2,500 died during police operations and the remainder are in dispute. The authorities say many deaths were caused by inter-gang violence or vigilantes, while human rights groups say there is a pattern of extra-judicial killings. The government strongly rejects that.
Asked if a drugs war run by PDEA would see fewer killings than those seen under the police, Lapena said it was up to the criminal gangs to decide whether to surrender quietly, or put up a fight.
"There are firefights that result in death...we cannot avoid that," he said.
Lapena said most previous operations led by the PDEA had resulted in arrests, not killings. Bloodshed was inevitable during a drugs war, he said, because dealers and corrupt police would kill others to cover their tracks.
"We don't have control over other elements who do the killings. The other killings are perpetrated, I would say, by drug syndicates themselves," Lapena said.
"That is why, I cannot say this will lower, or this will rise."
The remit and structure of the new joint task force between the PDEA and the armed forces could be finalised within this week, Lapena said.
PDEA has a major challenge in keeping up the intensity of a drugs war that was being waged primarily by the 160,000-strong Philippine National Police (PNP).
PDEA has a tiny fraction of that, with only 1,800 personnel. Lapena said PDEA had approval to recruit 900 more. The new task force would operate nationwide, but its size and number of operations was yet to be decided.
Lapena said PDEA would make up for the manpower shortage by strengthening links to local communities, setting up anti-drugs councils to identify those in need of rehabilitation, or "neutralisation", which he said meant arrests and prosecution, and was not a euphemism for killing.
Lapena is a former police chief of Davao, a city where Duterte was mayor for over two decades.
The narcotics agency chief said he had no idea why Duterte would make such drastic change to his drugs war, leaving PDEA with a race against time to come up with a plan.
"We will take on the job and we will deliver," he said.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)