More murders in Philippine drug war: rights group

Shadowy assassins have killed scores of poor victims in the Philippines after President Rodrigo Duterte officially ordered police to withdraw from his deadly drug war, a rights monitor said Friday.

Duterte pulled police from the crackdown on January 31 after a brutal seven-month campaign that left 2,555 drug suspects dead at the hands of law enforcers, with 3,930 other people murdered in unexplained circumstances.

The latest police tally given to AFP on Friday showed there were 4,076 "murder cases under investigation" on February 13.

This was 146 more than the end of January, which rights groups said showed extrajudicial killings had slowed but were nevertheless continuing in the drug war.

"The targets are still the same, as far as we are concerned: people linked to drugs and who live in poor neighbourhoods," Wilnor Papa, campaign official for the Philippine branch of Amnesty International, told AFP.

Papa said unknown assailants were now killing between nine and 10 people daily. This compared with about 30 people a day being killed by police and unknown assailants when officers were still leading the crackdown.

In one new shooting incident covered by an AFP photographer, police found four men shot dead inside a shanty in northern Manila before dawn on Thursday, in a scene very similar to those covered at the height of the drug war.

Witnesses said unknown suspects broke into the house and started shooting, while three other men were shot dead in separate incidents elsewhere in the same district that night, local police told AFP.

Duterte ordered all police at the end of January to stop prosecuting his drug war as he sought to cleanse the force of widespread corruption.

This came after anti-drug officers kidnapped a South Korean businessman then murdered him inside the national police headquarters as part of an extortion racket, according to an official investigation.

But Duterte promised the war would continue and more addicts, as well as traffickers, would be killed as he sought to eradicate drugs in society.

Amnesty issued a report this month accusing police of systemic human rights abuses in the drug war, including shooting dead defenceless people, paying assassins to murder addicts and stealing from those they killed.

It also said police were being paid by their superiors to kill.

Duterte has since ordered the much smaller Drug Enforcement Agency to lead the drug crackdown, with the support of the military.

Derrick Carreon, spokesman for the 1,791-member drug agency, told AFP there had been far fewer killings by authorities since it took charge, without giving figures.

"(But) there is no point in comparing these figures because the police is a much larger organisation, capable of conducting more operations," Carreon said, adding the military had mostly acted as observers so far.

The national police force has 160,000 officers.