Two farmers were killed while over 40 people were wounded as violence marred the dispersal of protesting farmers along Kidapawan Highway on Friday.
Among those injured were nine farmers, according to GMA News TV Live report citing the provincial government of Cotabato.
In a statement, Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor, spokesperson for the Philippine National Police, said two policemen were "under critical condition due to head trauma, reportedly due to attacks initiated from the assembled crowd."
Close to 6,000 farmers from the hinterland towns in Cotabato occupied a portion of the national highway since Wednesday calling for government assistance amid the effects of the El Niño phenomenon to their livelihood.
An earlier report on "Balitanghali" said the police gave the farmers until Friday morning to disperse, but leaders of the protesters held ground and pressed for a second round of negotiation with North Cotabato Governor Emylou Mendoza.
This prompted the police to move in, triggering a confrontation with the farmers, who threw rocks at the advancing policemen.
Gunshots were heard when a policeman was cornered by the protesters, according to GMA News stringer Williamor Magbanua.
Permit to rally lapsed
In its latest statement, the PNP released more details about the incident.
"Provincial Governor Emilou Mendoza and other mayors of North Cotabato attempted to engage the protesters. As stated later by the Governor, they exhausted all possible remedies, prompting sections of the crowd to disperse and head back to their communities. Many protesters, however, refused to clear the area. Their presence continued to disrupt public movement in one of the major transportation arteries of Mindanao," Mayor said.
"The permit to rally lapsed, and past 10:00 AM on April 1, 2016, acting upon guidance from Governor Mendoza, combined PNP troops under the police district and Police Senior Superintendent Alexander Tagum conducted an operation to clear the national highway and, in coordination with the DSWD, rescue minors who were part of the picket line."
He said protesters started the violence.
"Before the PNP could start their operation, however, protesters attacked them with poles and pieces of wood. Large rocks were also thrown at the policemen, and at the stationary fire truck deployed to the area. A commotion followed, which resulted in injuries to policemen and rallyists," he said.
He added that among those arrested was "an individual reported to be an NPA Commander from Barangay Basak, Magpet, North Cotabato."
Malacañang vows sanctions
Malacañang has vowed that sanctions will be imposed against those involved in the bloody dispersal of the protesting farmers.
“Accountability is being established and appropriate sanctions will be meted out if justified by the findings of the investigations,” Communications Herminio Coloma, Jr. said in a statement.
The protesters, reportedly members of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, began their march earlier this week from their base at the Spottswood Methodist Center along Quezon Boulevard in Kidapawan City.
The human chain prevented vehicles plying the Davao to Cotabato route from passing through the highway.
All exits and entrance routes along the boundary were blocked by the protesters. —KBK/NB/JST/ALG, GMA News