December 16, 2016 / 4:28 PM / 8 months ago

Philippines' president says he killed criminals to protect country

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a meeting with the Filipino community at the Singapore Expo December 16, 2016.Y.T. Lim

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday killings he maintains he committed while mayor of a southern city, sometimes cruising the streets on a motor bike looking for "encounters to kill", were part of legitimate operations against drug pushers.

Speaking to Filipino journalists traveling with him in Singapore, Duterte said he had killed three men during a hostage-taking incident in Davao City where he was mayor for more than 20 years.

"It was not because I was walking around that I killed," he said. "It was actually an event that was covered by the TV...I said I killed about three of them. I didn't really know how many bullets from my gun went through inside their bodies."

The firebrand leader told a gathering of business leaders at the presidential palace on Monday he had "personally" killed criminals and that he was prowling the city's streets on a big bike looking for "encounters to kill".

Senators have warned Duterte risks impeachment because of his statements about personally killing criminals in Davao.

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said in Washington Duterte's statement about looking for chances to kill criminals while riding a bike were "deeply troubling".

"The United States continues to be concerned by the widespread reports of extrajudicial killings by, or at the behest of, government authorities in the Philippines," he said.

During the election campaign early this year, the 71-year-old former prosecutor referred to the hostage-taking incident in Davao City to demonstrate toughness in fighting drug dealers.

"NOT GENOCIDE"

Duterte said he was only after criminals and would not murder because of race, religion or political belief. "It's not genocide, it's about crime. It's not covered under the charter of the International Criminal Court," he said.

"If you are fighting drug addicts and criminal, I can go as many as I want and for as long as there are drug pushers in the streets in my country... this campaign will go on until the last day of my term."

He said of anyone who would destroy the country, "I would not have second thought about cutting your head off", ordering the police to go out and hunt the drug peddlers and kill those who resist.

More than 2,000 people have died in anti-drug police operations since Duterte came to power on July 1, with another 3,000 killed by masked men on motor cycles or vigilantes.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in washington; Editing By xxxxx

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