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FILE PHOTO - Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao(reuters_tickers)
MANILA (Reuters) - There is a "strong likelihood" Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will lift a suspension on police from his war on drugs, his spokesman said on Thursday, a move likely to alarm activists who accuse police of committing murder under the guise of drug busts.
Amid international concern over the staggering death toll and several killings of youngsters, President Rodrigo Duterte last month suspended police anti-narcotics operations for a second time and put the country's undermanned drugs enforcement agency, PDEA, in charge.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque reiterated Duterte's concern expressed last week that the drugs problem could intensify and gains might be lost with the Philippine National Police (PNP) sidelined.
"A decision will soon be made," Roque told a regular briefing.
"That's the president's call. If he thinks it (the war on drugs) must be returned (to the PNP) then it must be, the PDEA has been given enough time."
He added: "Effectively he has manifested already a decision to return it to the PNP."
Close to 4,000 mostly urban poor Filipinos have been killed in what police say are anti-drug operations. Human rights groups and political opponents say executions of drug users and small-time peddlers have been widespread, but police insist those killed were all dealers who put up violent resistance.
Police have rebuffed criticism and cite 117,000 arrests as proof that their policy is to preserve life. They also deny links to at least 2,000 mysterious street killings of drug users.
Roque said Duterte knew the police had flaws and would not tolerate abuses, but he still believed in them.
He suspended police in January and reinstated them five weeks later, arguing that drugs were pouring back to the streets.
It is unclear why he removed them again on Oct. 11. His directive was to "bring order" to the campaign, but in angry, at times incoherent speeches, he suggested he was trying to appease the international community.
Duterte last week oversaw his biggest international summit yet but there was no known challenge from other leaders to his war on drugs, including from U.S. President Donald Trump.
The volatile Duterte did, however, lash out afterwards about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling it an "insult" that he should express his concern to him.
Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said people should "brace for more bloodshed" and called again for a United Nations-led international investigation.
"Until that happens, the number of victims denied justice and accountability will likely only continue to grow," he wrote in a web posting.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)