MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine president has ordered the cancellation of a multimillion-dollar deal to buy 16 helicopters from Canada.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s order, issued in a news conference Feb. 9, came after the Canadian government decided to review the 12 billion peso (approximately $300 million) helicopter deal due to concerns the Philippine military might use the utility helicopters in counterinsurgency assaults. The contract was expected to support up to 1,000 manufacturing and related jobs in Quebec.
Philippine defence officials gave assurances Feb. 8 that the Montreal-made Bell 412EPI helicopters would be used to ferry supplies and troops, including those wounded in combat, and to respond to disasters, and would not be employed to attack insurgents.
Known for his impromptu decisions and public outbursts, Duterte declared in a nationally televised news conference in southern Davao city, his hometown, that he wants the helicopter deal, along with purchases of unspecified U.S. weapons, halted.
“I want to tell the armed forces to cut the deal, don’t proceed with it and somehow we will look for another supplier,” Duterte said of the helicopter purchase.
Although he said he respects Canada’s stand, Duterte said using the helicopters just to ferry troops and dead soldiers is “a crazy proposition.”
“I’m buying helicopters because I want to finish them off,” said Duterte, referring to Muslim and communist rebels along with Islamic militants in the country’s volatile south.
“I hope that we will never be called upon to use arms in their defence or for them. You will never get it for as long as I am president. We are neutral,” Duterte said, without making clear if he was referring to Canada or the U.S., his country’s treaty ally, or both.
Duterte, who has been critical of U.S. security policies and has lashed out at Washington for criticizing his deadly crackdown on illegal drugs, did not elaborate on why he wants purchases of unspecified U.S. arms to be stopped.
“U.S., because of its too much imposition, but I assure you, I am supporting Trump,” Duterte said. “He is a good president. He is doing it also for his country, people just don’t understand him.”
Duterte’s friendly attitude toward Trump contrasts with his disdain for former U.S. President Barack Obama, who raised concerns about Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Trump visited the Philippine capital, Manila, in November to meet Duterte and attend an annual summit with Asian and Western leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau said then that he raised concerns about human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign during a meeting with the Philippine president. The Canadian leader was praised by human rights groups for raising the concerns, but Duterte said he was insulted and angered by the remarks.
Nearly 4,000 mostly poor drug suspects have been killed in clashes with police, according to police officials, who say the suspects resisted violently. Human rights groups have reported much higher death tolls and accused law enforcers of carrying out extrajudicial killings and of setting up crime scenes to make the victims appear to have fought back.
Duterte, a former city mayor who built a political name with his extra-tough approach to crime, has denied condoning unlawful killings but has openly threatened drug suspects with death and cursed people who criticize his anti-crime methods.
A prosecutor in the International Criminal Court, or ICC, announced Thursday that she was opening a preliminary probe into alleged crimes by Duterte in connection with the war on drugs.
“While some of such killings have reportedly occurred in the context of clashes between or within gangs, it is alleged that many of the reported incidents involved extrajudicial killings in the course of police anti-drug operations,” said Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
Bensouda has said in the past that she was deeply concerned about reports of the killings, and that statements by “high officials” in the Philippines “seem to condone such killings.”
Duterte said past investigations failed to turn up evidence that he ordered extrajudicial killings of specific people, although he acknowledged he has threatened to kill those who destroy his country’s youth.
“There are many massacres now, in all parts of Asia … and I’m the one you want to hit,” Duterte said. “You better clear that up because I will withdraw from the ICC.”
—With files from The Canadian Press