The Philippine army chief expressed outrage Tuesday over the fatal police shooting of four soldiers, including two officers, and demanded justice with both sides providing contrasting accounts of the killings.
Eduardo Ano, a retired military chief of staff who now oversees the national police as interior secretary, ordered the police involved in Monday's violence in the southern town of Jolo in Sulu province be disarmed and restricted for investigation.
Police said the soldiers were killed in a "misencounter" with a group of police officers. The army has countered that its two officers and two enlisted men were on a mission against Abu Sayyaf militants, including suspected suicide bombers, when they were flagged down and later fatally shot by police without provocation even after the soldiers identified themselves.
An army statement said its commanding general, Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, "is enraged" and vowed "there will be no let up in our quest for truth and justice."
The violence reflects the often-complicated conditions under which the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and its allied foreign and local militants has been waged by the military, with backing from the police, for about three decades. The on and off offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by the U.S. and the Philippines as a terrorist group, but it remains a national security threat.
"This is a very unfortunate incident that should have not happened," Ano said. Aside from a police investigation he said he would ask the National Bureau of Investigation, Manila's counterpart to the FBI, to carry out an inquiry.
An initial police report said Jolo police were on patrol with anti-illegal drug agents in the town's Bus-Bus village when they spotted an SUV with "four armed male persons," whom they stopped. The four were directed to drive to the Jolo police station "for verification" but when they arrived there, "the said persons fled," the report said.
Police chased the four, who got out and pointed their guns at police.
"Before they could pull the trigger, the Philippine National Police personnel were able to shoot them in defense," sparking an exchange of shots that killed "the four suspects," the police said.
Gapay said that police at a checkpoint flagged down the four soldiers, who properly identified themselves, but the police later "approached and fired upon them for still unknown reasons."
Citing eyewitnesses, Gapay said "no altercation transpired between the two parties nor was there any provocation on the part of army personnel to warrant such carnage."
An army officer with knowledge of what happened told The Associated Press that while being tailed by a van of policemen, the soldiers stopped and one of the officers got out of their SUV with his hands up, apparently to indicate he had no hostile intent.
But the police opened fire and killed the four soldiers, who were in casual clothes, for still unexplained reasons, said the army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of what transpired.