Philippines' Duterte lets justice minister resign, picks heads of security forces

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday he had accepted the resignation of his justice secretary, the eighth member of his cabinet to leave since last year, and had picked the heads of the country’s security forces.

FILE PHOTO: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announces the disbandment of police operations against illegal drugs at the Malacanang palace in Manila, Philippines early January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ezra Acayan/File Photo

Duterte gave no reason for letting go staunch loyalist and former university classmate Vitaliano Aguirre, but it came at a time of rampant media speculation he would be sacked over his performance.

The president made the announcement during a speech, calling Aguirre “my fraternity brother”. He was replaced by Menardo Guevarra, a lawyer who was the deputy executive secretary in the president’s office.

Duterte named Metro Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde as the new head of the 175,000-member national police force, replacing the tough-talking Ronald dela Rosa, whose extended tenure ends soon.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque had earlier said there were no indications Duterte would fire Aguirre, who attended a monthly cabinet meeting late on Wednesday.

Roque also announced the appointment of Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, who led troops in a five-month-long battle in a southern city last year, as the new military chief.

Albayalde and Galvez will assume their positions next week after the president returned from trips to China and Hong Kong, Roque added. The changes will trigger changes in security forces’ leadership.

He said Aguirre’s replacement had taken his oath as the new justice secretary.

Rumours about Aguirre’s departure from cabinet went into overdrive in recent weeks after his justice department, due to insufficient evidence, dropped charges against several drug kingpins who had admitted their involvement in the drug trade.

Duterte has vowed to jail or kill what he calls “drug lords” as part of a bloody war on drugs in which small-time peddlers and slum dwellers have borne the brunt of a crackdown in which police have killed thousands of people.

Aguirre was also dragged into a controversy over an attempt to bribe two officials of the immigration bureau, which comes under his remit, and a proposal to make a businesswoman embroiled in a bribery scandal a state witness.

Aguirre was in the same law school fraternity as Duterte in Davao City, and he was the lawyer for a police officer accused of carrying out killings at Duterte’s behest during the 22 years Duterte was mayor of the southern city.

He is the latest in a series of top officials who have either resigned or been sacked from the Cabinet, or to have been rejected by lawmakers during confirmation hearings.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel, Kim Coghill