The van’s driver, police officer Franklin Kho, said he was driving the van away from the protesters because he feared they would try to seize it and use it to attack the policemen.
Television footage showed the van repeatedly ramming the protesters as it drove wildly back and forth after activists surrounded and started hitting the vehicle with wooden batons they seized from police.
In front of horrified crowds, including videojournalists and photographers, the van suddenly charged backwards then raced forwards twice over a space of about 20 metres (60 feet), barrelling through the scattered protesters and hurtling some to the side. A few were run over but somehow managed to stand.
At least three student activists were taken to a hospital, protest leader Renato Reyes said.
“There was absolutely no justification for it,” Mr Reyes said of the violent police dispersal of about 1,000 protesters. “Even as the president vowed an independent foreign policy, Philippine police forces still act as running dogs of the US.”
Police also used tear gas and arrested at least 23 protesters who broke through a line of riot police and hurled red paint at the officers and a US government seal at the start of the rally at the seaside embassy compound.
The national police said in a statement that the violent dispersal was “unfortunate” and an investigation would try to determine if the riot policemen followed crowd-control procedures. Investigators will also evaluate criminal and civil liabilities of the protest leader and rallyists for an alleged illegal mass assembly.
A left-wing legal group, the National Union of People’s Lawyers, condemned the police violence and said it would help the injured and detained protesters file criminal complaints against the police for violating their constitutional rights to free assembly.
The protesters demanded an end to the presence of visiting US troops, supporting a call by president Rodrigo Duterte for a foreign policy not dependent on its long-time ally.