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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announces the disbandment of police operations against illegal drugs at the Malacanang palace in Manila, Philippines early January 30, 2017. Picture taken January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ezra Acayan(reuters_tickers)
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Saturday said it was committed to human rights and condemned extrajudicial killings but said those were "not to be confused" with incidents in its war on drugs, after a U.S. State Department report voiced concern about such deaths.
About 8,000 people have died since President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed a crackdown on drugs eight months ago that has caused international alarm.
Some 2,555 deaths were in operations where police said they had encountered violent resistance. Rights groups believe many of the others were assassinations of drugs users, with police complicity. The authorities reject that and blame vigilantes or drugs gangs.
The U.S. State Department's annual country report on Human Rights Practices, released on Friday, said the most significant problems for the Philippines were killings allegedly undertaken by vigilantes, security forces, and insurgents.
It noted public statements by Duterte "suggesting that killing suspected drug traffickers and users was necessary to meet his goal," and it voiced concern about police impunity.
"Although the president and senior officials stated that police should follow the law, and that there was no tolerance for extrajudicial killings, authorities made promises of immunity from investigation and prosecution for officers involved in drug killings," the report said.
Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella responded by saying human rights were a priority for the government - as was the "noble crusade" against drugs.
"Vigilante or extrajudicial killings are unlawful and are therefore not sanctioned. The government condemns such practice," Abella said in a statement.
"These are not to be confused with the government's war on illegal drugs, which is an urgent and critical domestic matter."
He added: "We hope the international community will support us in this effort."
The anti-drugs campaign saw friction between Manila and Washington under former President Barack Obama, with Duterte saying Obama could "go to hell" and promising to humiliate him.
Duterte has repeatedly threatened to sever military ties between the historic allies but has not followed through.
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Hugh Lawson)