MANILA - A Philippine mayor who paraded suspected drug dealers through the streets of his city was shot dead on Monday while attending a weekly flag-raising ceremony for government officials, police said.
Mayor Antonio Cando Halili was declared dead on arrival at hospital from a single bullet wound to the chest, sustained as he and civil servants sang the national anthem in Tanauan, a city in Batangas province southwest of the capital Manila.
"We are shocked, we are saddened," Vice Mayor Jhoanna Villamor, who was standing beside Halili, told radio station DZBB after the shooting.
What appeared to be a smartphone video of the shooting went viral on social media, showing a single shot ringing out as the anthem played, then screaming and pandemonium. The video could not be immediately verified.
The controversial Halili had compared himself to Duterte as he publicly shared the president’s hardline position against crime and illegal drugs.
He gained prominence for introducing a "walk of shame" parade of alleged drug dealers through his city of Tanauan.
But in 2017, Halili’s name surfaced on a “narco-list” presented by Duterte, of officials allegedly linked to narcotics.
Halili was stripped of control of the police following the publication of the list, but he denied any ties to drugs.
Police say they have killed more than 4,200 suspected drug dealers during shootouts in a bloody war on drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte two years ago, a campaign condemned by domestic and international human rights groups.
In an interview with Reuters in August 2016 - the second month of the crackdown - Halili said he backed Duterte's campaign but believed drug kingpins should be the main targets, otherwise thousands of people would be killed.
He expressed concern over the way police conducted the war on drugs and the reliability of their intelligence, and that he might be accused of colluding with narcotics gangs.
"No one is safe - mayors, governors, congressmen - just a false intelligence report by the police can end up with any of them being destroyed," he said in the interview.
"I have a feeling they (police) are going after the small fry to frighten the people," he said.
Police in Batangas province are investigating Monday's shooting. One investigator told a radio station that a high-powered rifle was used in the attack.
Town police chief Renato Mercado told AFP the shot was fired from about 150 metres (490 feet) away.
”The distance from the position was extraordinary. It could not be done by an ordinary person. His skill can be compared to a trained sniper,” he told AFP.
Though the Philippines sees occasional slayings of local politicians, the brazen nature of the killing and links to Duterte’s drug war drew immediate outrage.
”This is clearly another case of EJK (extra-judicial killing) resulting from the so-called drug war launched by the government,” opposition leader Senator Francis Pangilinan said in a statement.
”It is this Philippine image of a‘wild, wild west’ that has also dampened the desire of both foreign and local investors,” he added.
Three other mayors on the "narco-list" have been shot dead, one of them while being held inside a jail cell.
Mercado, the Tanauan police chief, said that the killing may be linked to the illegal drugs allegations.
Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque condemned the crime and praised Halili as the mayor of "one of the most progressive towns," in his province.