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Arturo Lascanas, a retired Davao policeman, wipes his tears during a news conference at the Senate headquarters in metro Manila, Philippines February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte operated a "death squad" while mayor of Davao city, giving cash and orders for police and assassins to murder criminals, according to a former policeman who said he was involved in the clandestine killings.

In remarks contradicting his denial under oath last year of the existence of such a "death squad", Arturo Lascanas said he was one of the ringleaders of the group that began operating when Duterte became mayor of the southern city in 1988.

Duterte has repeatedly denied involvement in vigilantism or summary executions, either as president or during his 22 years as Davao mayor. His police chief has denied there was ever a death squad in Davao, describing it as fiction created by the media.

On Monday, Lascanas asserted that the Davao death squad was no myth and he was one of those who carried out secret killings of drug dealers and criminals at Duterte's behest.

"It is true, the Davao death squad, or DDS, really exists," Lascanas told reporters at the Senate in Manila.

"When Mayor Duterte sat down as mayor for the first time, we started what is called 'salvaging' of people, these people are suspects committing crime in Davao."

"We implemented the personal orders of Mayor Duterte to us."

Duterte's legal counsel, Salvadore Panelo, said Lascanas' allegations were a "continuing fabrication" and "another false narration".

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said allegations that Duterte was linked to extrajudicial killings had been proved false by numerous independent agencies.

"Our people are aware that this character assassination is nothing but vicious politics," he told CNN Philippines.

Lascanas said he had decided his "obedience and loyalty" to Duterte must end and had promised God that he would confess.

He is the second man to go public with claims of involvement in murders allegedly ordered by Duterte, the hugely popular president nicknamed "the Punisher", whose ruthless approach to tackling crime has won public approval.

'EXPLOSIVE'

The account given by Lascanas was similar to that of hit man Edgar Matobato, who testified in September he had also been a death squad member in Davao and he had seen Duterte shoot a man dead and give orders for police to kill criminals.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, a critic of Duterte who appeared at the same news conference as Lascanes, said he would file a motion for a Senate investigation into the so-called Davao death squad.

Another anti-Duterte Senator, Leila de Lima, who led a Senate investigation last year into the Davao killings, described Lascanas' account as "a very, very explosive development".

Human rights groups have documented about 1,400 suspicious killings in Davao while Duterte was mayor and critics say the war on drugs he unleashed as president has the same hallmarks.

More than 7,700 people have been killed in the latest crackdown, some 2,500 in what police say are shootouts during raids and sting operations.

Most of the rest are under investigation and activists believe many were extrajudicial killings.

Lascanas said death squad members in Davao got 20,000 to 100,000 pesos ($398 to $1,990) per hit, depending on the target's value. Some members, he said, were former Communist rebels.

He confessed to the unsolved murder of a Davao radio show host who was staunchly critical of Duterte.

Lascanas detailed his involvement in the bombing of a mosque and the killing of the family of a suspected kidnapper. The victims included a pregnant woman, a small boy and an elderly person.

Both attacks were ordered by Duterte, he said.

"This is how it began, all the killings we did in Davao, whether we bury or we throw in the sea, we are being paid by Mayor Duterte," he said.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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