Philippine President Gloria Arroyo yesterday ordered the replacement of soldiers and police guarding a farm controlled by the family of former president Corazon Aquino after deadly riots involving striking workers claimed as many as seven lives.
National police said four protesters were killed and 16 others, including three policemen, were injured when demonstrators protesting job cuts clashed with riot police outside the gates of the Hacienda Luisita near the northern city of Tarlac on Tuesday.
However, union officials said seven people were killed and 30 injured.
Arroyo said she was "deeply saddened over the violent clashes," and appealed for "prudence and sobriety on both sides." She avoided blaming anyone for the bloodshed.
Police and soldiers involved in the riot would be rotated out and replaced with a fresh contingent that would exercise "maximum tolerance", she said in a statement.
The workers on the 6,000hectare estate launched a strike after more than 300 farmhands were laid off and separate negotiations between the management and the sugar mill union broke down.
The strikers refused a government order to return to work, the labor department said. The stand-off turned into a pitched battle on Tuesday when soldiers and police arrived to enforce the labor department's "return to work" order.
Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas said the strike had been illegal as the union had not complied with a required "cooling off" period.
Arroyo said government agencies would extend burial and hospital assistance to the casualties. She urged the management and strikers to settle the dispute in "a peaceful and rational manner."
Jose Romero, a director of the striking United Luisita Workers union, said the dead included two children who choked on the tear gas fired by the riot police.
Residents who sympathized with the strike had brought their children to the picketline, he said.
National police chief Director-General Edgardo Aglipay ordered a "thorough investigation" of the rioting at Hacienda Luisita, a corporate farm controlled by the Cojuangco family, which includes ex-president Corazon Aquino.
Romero accused the riot police of starting the violence, saying "they were shooting at us, using automatic fire."
Romero said that he was hit and kicked by riot police while ducking to avoid gunfire.
Jose Cojuangco, brother of former president Aquino and head of the Cojuangco family, said his sister Corazon Aquino did not have a say in the management of the company.
Many of those laid off had accepted their retirement pay and only about 80 workers were actually taking part in the strike. Their ranks had been swelled by outsiders brought in by militant labor groups, Cojuangco charged.