Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, speaking at an awards ceremony in Davao City on Friday, has ordered that the military's answer to the recent killings of 21 people will be in a “tit-for-tat” (an equivalent retaliation) manner.

The order is directed at the New Peoples Army (NPA) who are suspected in the torture and killing of four intelligence police officers in Ayungon town, Negros Oriental province. The four men are among the 21 killed on the island.

The Philippine archipelago has three major island groups. Luzon, home to Manila, is to the north; Mindanao lies to the south and is home to the largest Muslim population in the country along with Davao City, where Duterte once served as mayor; the Visayan island group is in the middle containing the Negros, Oriental province, where the killings occurred.

The NPA is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and it normally operates in rural hard-to-access areas away from the larger cities. It was formed in 1969 and is best known for its involvement in the “People’s Power” overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in the mid-1980s. The roganization is funded by “taxes” collected from local businesses. In 2017, the NPA was designated a terrorist organization by President Duterte following a similar designation by the United States and the European Union.

After Duterte’s latest order, the CPP, in a statement sent via email said, “The New People’s Army is not shaken by Duterte’s threats. The NPA can defend itself with arms.” The email continued, “But unarmed peasants, lawyers, human rights defenders, church people, civilians can’t. The NPA must fight back for them.”

The CPP denied the allegations of torture and claimed that the police officers were killed in an ambush and were considered “armed adversaries of the NPA who died in a legitimate act of war.” They also said that Duterte’s order to “give NPA rebels what they deserve” was meant as a directive to target civilians and instill fear in those sympathetic to the leftist activists.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech during the 121st founding anniversary of the Philippine Army (PA) at Taguig city, Metro Manila, Philippines March 20, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

The CPP also pointed to an incident where the live-in girlfriend of an NPA rebel was captured and killed by the Philippine military. She had been shot in the genitals as well as other areas. The soldiers, according to the CPP, were acting upon Duterte’s order to shoot female guerrillas “in the vagina." Duterte has claimed that this was only a “sarcastic” remark made in 2018 at an inauguration ceremony.

Duterte’s said Friday at the awards ceremony that he or his military would not torture or harm captured NPA members saying, “Otherwise, we are no different from the barbarians like them.