Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's top justice official urged police on Friday to abort a manhunt for dozens of potentially dangerous convicts freed over the past few months, fearing violence after the president offered generous rewards to kill or capture them.
The release of so many criminals guilty of violent offences as part of a programme to reward good behaviour has been a huge embarrassment for Duterte, a former prosecutor who won an election by promising to stamp out crime in the Philippines.
Secretary of Justice Menardo Guevarra said he wants police to stand down after the midnight expiry of Duterte's deadline for inmates to turn themselves in, as the number of those who had reported to authorities roughly matched the 1,700 serious offenders freed.
"We want to make sure that those remaining are actually people that need to be arrested," Guevarra told the Manila-based ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC).
"We find it prudent to pause for a while, tally the count and make sure those who surrendered are those on the list."
On Tuesday, Duterte had offered a "prize" equivalent to one million Philippine pesos ($19,000) for each of the convicted murderers, rapists and drug offenders released in a corrections bureau blunder, and said he preferred them caught dead rather than alive.
"The one million prize is available to those who can capture them dead or alive," Duterte said.
"But maybe dead would be a better option. I will pay you smiling," added the president, known for his brutal anti-drug crackdown that has led to the death of thousands.
'Afraid for their lives'
Guevarra tried this week to intervene to ensure the public did not take literally Duterte's expressed desire for the fugitives to be killed.
Duterte has drawn flak for his fierce rhetoric, including calls for the deaths of drug users or alleged criminals, which critics say is inciting vigilantism and spurring on police to kill illegally.
His office rejects that, saying his words are meant for effect, and should be taken seriously, not literally.
Duterte was also caught in another controversy in recent days when he admitted to ordering the ambush of a former town mayor he had accused of being a drug dealer. His spokesman later said that the president misspoke.
Guevarra, the justice secretary, would not identify the wanted out of concern that people trying to capture dangerous criminals could get hurt or might target the wrong people.
More time was needed to verify those who had reported to authorities, he said, adding that they included former convicts who were not under suspicion, but who had surrendered for fear of being killed, or because they preferred being in prison.
"Probably they are afraid for their lives because the president said you'd better surrender or you'll be hunted down dead or alive," he said.
"Some may have found it difficult to adjust outside."