Reuters International

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a late night news conference at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ezra Acayan

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By Karen Lema and Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine defence ministry asked President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday to issue an order for the military to play a role in his war on drugs, including granting troops powers to arrest "scalawag" police.

The ministry asked Duterte to formalise remarks he made in a speech to army generals on Tuesday, when he said he wanted their help in his drugs war, and to detain members of a police force Duterte on Sunday said was "corrupt to the core".

The ministry asked for "an official order regarding this presidential directive to serve as a legal basis for our troops to follow".

"By the same token, the president's verbal directive to arrest 'scalawag cops' should also be covered by a formal order," the ministry said in a statement.

Duterte's police chief instructed the Philippine National Police (PNP) on Monday to suspend their anti-drugs operations after the killing of a South Korean businessman by rogue drug-squad police. Duterte is infuriated and embarrassed by the incident which he said had "international implications".

Duterte's suggestion that the military should fill the void left by police marks a stunning change of tack by the former city mayor, who had steadfastly supported the police amid allegations from human rights groups and some lawmakers of widespread abuses of power.

The Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency, a body a fraction of the size of the PNP, takes over the lead in fighting drugs and Duterte suggested he may need the military's help.

The rights group Amnesty International said in a report on Wednesday police prosecuting the war on drugs had behaved like the criminal underworld they are supposed to be suppressing, taking payments for killings and delivering bodies to funeral homes.

It said the wave of drugs-related killings as part of Duterte's campaign appeared to be "systematic, planned and organised" by authorities, and could constitute crimes against humanity. The president's office has yet to comment on the report.

More than 7,600 people have been killed since Duterte launched his war on drugs, more than 2,500 in police operations, with many of the remaining deaths attributed to vigilantes and turf wars.

It is not immediately clear what role the military might play in the anti-drugs campaign.

The volatile president has threatened several times to declare martial law to help the drugs crackdown, and also ruled it out. He has made no suggestion in the past week of invoking military rule.

Duterte's spokesman on Tuesday said the president was fully aware of police corruption when he gave police the lead in the war on drugs, but the scale of the narcotics problem was so big that he had no other choice.

The Drugs Enforcement Agency said leading the crackdown without the police would be a challenge, but it could handle it.

"We can enlist the help of other agencies and other stakeholders and in fact our director general has been in several meetings with the AFP already," said the agency's spokesman, Derrick Carreon, referring to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

"We will be deploying teams in key areas where it would be easier for them to respond. It will be more challenging ... that is why we are engaging other stakeholders."

Senator Leila De Lima, a staunch critic of Duterte, said bringing in the military was a bad idea.

"The solution is to stop the killings, and not call out the AFP to do the killings that the PNP has supposedly ceased to perform," she said in a statement.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Reuters

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