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Philippine Anti-Drug Operations Halted Over Police Scandal

The Philippine police chief stopped the use of the national police force in anti-drug operations Monday and disbanded all police anti-narcotics units after the president's brutal crackdown was used as a cover by rogue officers to kidnap and kill a South Korean man for money.

Police Director-General Ronald Dela Rosa told police officers he would use the indefinite halt of anti-drug operations to launch a massive purge of police involved in crimes. A counter-intelligence force would be formed to catch rogue officers and records of those previously implicated in crimes would be reviewed.

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Policemen investigate a crime scene where a woman was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Manila, Jan. 5, 2017. President Rodrigo Duterte's war against drugs has claimed about 6,000 thousand lives. Noel Celis / AFP/Getty Images

"No more drug operations now," Dela Rosa told police officers at the main police camp, without indicating how long the ban would last.

An estimated 7,000 drug-related killings have occurred since President Rodrigo Duterte started his anti-drug crackdown in July, and more than 2,500 of those involved suspects who allegedly fought back and were gunned down in clashes with police, the national police said, adding 35 policemen and three soldiers had been killed.

The scale of the anti-drug campaign has been unprecedented, with officials reporting that more than 7 million houses of drug suspects have been visited so far, prompting more than 1.1 million mostly drug users to surrender and agree to undergo rehabilitation programs.

Related: Philippines’ Deadly Drug War

Human rights watchdogs have suspected extrajudicial killings of drug suspects may have been covertly carried out by police or at their behest.

Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said the temporary stoppage in police anti-drug operations to allow an internal police purge "is nothing less than an empty public relations gesture unless he seeks meaningful accountability for the more than 7,000 Filipinos killed" in the crackdown.

While Dela Rosa has suspended police operations, Duterte has declared his crackdown would continue up the last day of his six-year term.

Image: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte listens as Philippine National Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa whispers to him, during a late night news conference at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 29, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte listens as Philippine National Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa whispers to him, during a late night news conference at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 29, 2017. Ezra Acayan / Reuters

"We have to focus our effort toward internal cleansing and by the time we have cleansed the national police, the president will determine that and he will instruct us to go back to our war on drugs," said Dela Rosa, warning wrongdoers they face dire punishments.

"You policemen involved in syndicates, let's see what happens now, fight back so you'll end up dead," Dela Rosa said. "You will be killed by this counter-intelligence task force."

With the police essentially taken out of the crackdown, most of the work would shift to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which has a much smaller number of enforcers, Dela Rosa said.

Related: Philippine President Under Fire For Claims He ‘Personally’ Killed Criminals

As to how the police crisis affects drug lords, "this is a momentary victory on your part," the police chief said, expressing fears that use of methamphetamine, locally known as "shabu," may rise again. "Go ahead and enjoy, but there is always a time for reckoning."

Image: Police officer Ricky Sta. Isabel (C), one of the suspects in the kidnapping and murder of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo, is escorted by fellow policemen as they leave the National Bureau of Investigation building in Manila on Jan. 20, 2017.
Police officer Ricky Sta. Isabel (C), one of the suspects in the kidnapping and murder of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo, is escorted by fellow policemen as they leave the National Bureau of Investigation building in Manila on Jan. 20, 2017. A South Korean businessman kidnapped by Philippine policemen under the guise of a raid on illegal drugs was murdered at the national police headquarters in Manila, authorities said. Noel Celis / AFP/Getty Images

The crisis was sparked by the kidnapping and killing of a South Korean businessman, who was snatched by police officers for ransom using a fake warrant for his arrest for a purported drug offense. But the victim was killed at the main police camp in metropolitan Manila, and the officers collected the ransom without telling his wife he was dead, according to police. He was allegedly cremated, his ashes flushed down a toilet bowl, according to an angry Duterte.

Two of the officers suspected of carrying out the crime were on a key anti-drug force. Dela Rosa resigned amid the scandal but Duterte asked him to stay on.