MANILA (Updated)-- President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday that his bloody anti-drug campaign that has left nearly 1,800 people dead does not amount to genocide, but that he's ready to go to jail to defend his men from lawsuits.
Duterte drew a line between the widespread killings sparked by his anti-drug war and the brutality under Syrian President Bashar Assad and the atrocities committed by Islamic State group extremists.
"Genocide? Who did I kill? I did not kill any child. I did not drop barrel (bombs) just like Assad," Duterte said in a speech to mark the Philippines' national heroes' day before war veterans, ambassadors and top officials. "I'm fighting ... criminals."
Referring to Islamic State group militants, whom he called "idiots," Duterte said, "I do not burn women because they refuse to have sex."
At least 1,779 drug suspects have been killed in Duterte's campaign, including 712 who were gunned down in clashes with police, with the rest being slain in still-unclear circumstances, the national police chief told a Senate inquiry last week.
At least 3.7 million Filipinos have become addicted to methamphetamine, a prohibited stimulant known locally as shabu, with about 600,000 drug users and dealers surrendering to authorities, Duterte said.
Human rights groups have expressed alarm over the spate of killings, and U.N.-appointed human rights experts warned steps should be taken to halt the violence, adding that the government and law enforcers could be held responsible.
"Claims to fight the illicit drug trade do not absolve the government from its international legal obligations and do not shield state actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings," U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions Agnes Callamard said in a statement this month.
The 71-year-old Duterte built a name with his deadly crime-busting style as a longtime mayor of Davao city. He described his campaign against drugs as a harsh war that would involve the military because the problem has worsened into a crisis and claimed the lives of law enforcers.
"We might still end up like the South American countries and their fractured governments. I am declaring war," he told an audience at a national heroes' cemetery Monday that included ambassadors, war veterans and security officials. The drug menace, he said, "has infected every nook and corner of this country involving generals, mayors, governors, barangay (village) captains" and policemen.
Pressing his campaign, Duterte announced bounties of 2 million pesos ($42,000) for information that would help the government identify any police officer protecting drugs syndicates.
He repeated his pledge to defend the police and military, but warned law enforcers against conniving with criminals.
"In the pursuit of law and order, pursuant to my directions, you do not have to worry about criminal liability," he said. "I will go to the prison for you. I take full legal responsibility, you just do it according to the books."
"But for those in government, the police, the corrupt police and the corrupt judges and the corrupt prosecutors, there will be a day of comeuppance, there will always be a day of reckoning," Duterte said. (AP)