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FILE PHOTO: Canada's Minister of international trade Francois-Philippe Champagne speaks during an interview with Reuters in Danang, Vietnam November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

(reuters_tickers)

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Just one day after signing a $233 million agreement to sell 16 helicopters to the Philippines, the Canadian government on Wednesday ordered a review of the deal amid concerns the aircraft could be used to fight rebels.

Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said that the deal - formally signed on Tuesday - had been struck in 2012 on the understanding the helicopters would be used for search-and-rescue missions.

Philippine Major-General Restituto Padilla, military chief of plans, told Reuters on Tuesday the helicopters would be used for the military's internal security operations, adding they could also be deployed in search-and-rescue and disaster relief operations.

"When we saw that declaration ... we immediately launched a review with the relevant authorities. And we will obviously review the facts and take the right decision," Champagne told reporters, without giving more details.

The Bell 412EPI helicopters were due be delivered early next year as the Philippine military prepares to step up operations against Islamist and communist rebels.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana initially expressed bemusement at news of Canada reviewing the deal.

He later issued a statement that the helicopters would primarily be used for the transporting and supplies, ferrying wounded soldiers and for humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

"They are not attack or close support aircraft," Lorenzana said. "While they may be used in support of Internal Security Operations ... their role is limited to those that I mentioned."

He added: "Should the Canadian government choose to discontinue their sale of the aircraft to us, then we will procure them from another source."

CLEAR REGULATIONS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked later whether he was concerned the helicopters might be used against Filipino citizens, replied "Absolutely."

Canada has very clear regulations about to whom it can sell weapons and how they can be used, he said during a question and answer event at the University of Chicago.

"We are going to make sure before this deal or any other deal goes through that we are abiding by the rules ... that Canadian governments have to follow," he said.

In November, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte publicly criticized Trudeau at a regional summit in Manila for raising questions about his war on drugs, calling it an "official insult", adding that he "would not answer to any other bullshit, especially (from) foreigners".

Nearly 4,000 Filipinos have been killed by police in the campaign since June 2016. Human rights groups accuse police of carrying out illegal killings, staging crime scenes and falsifying reports, a charge they deny.

"Human rights is a key element of our foreign policy and of our trade policy," said Champagne.

In 2016, the Liberal government was criticized for deciding to honour a contract to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, despite human rights concerns. Like the helicopter contract, the deal had been arranged by Canada's former Conservative administration.

Philippine defence ministry spokesman, Arsenio Andolong, said it was "unfair to equate internal security operations in general with human rights violations" or to cast judgment on the military when allegations were unverified.

He did not specify what the allegations or violations were, or who had made them.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in MANILA; Editing by Peter Cooney, Cynthia Osterman, Michael Perry and Kim Coghill)

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Reuters