Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Philippines: deadliest massacre tests government

A few miles (kilometers) off the main highway, on a remote hilltop covered with waist-high grass, bodies lay with twisted hands reaching into the air. They had been shot point-blank.

Nearby, bodies were being laid out under banana leaves Tuesday as police — their faces covered against the stench — unearthed a mass grave containing 22 victims from Monday's ambush on an election caravan. The discovery brought the death toll to 46 — an unprecedented act of violence at the outset of the country's election season.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao with a neighboring southern province, sending extra troops and police to try to impose the rule of law.

"No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law," she said.

Few think she will be successful in the impoverished, lawless region that has been outside the central government's reach for generations, and where warlords backed by private armies go by their own rules.

Authorities ended the search for bodies Wednesday. The final death toll included 18 Filipino journalists from regional newspapers, TV and radio stations who were accompanying family members and supporters of a gubernatorial candidate out to file his nomination papers for May 2010 elections.

The deaths were "the largest single massacre of journalists ever," according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the "heinous crime committed inside the context of a local election campaign" and hoped that "no effort will be spared to bring justice and to hold the perpetrators accountable," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Dozens of gunmen intercepted the caravan as it traveled on a two-lane highway that cuts across vast open tracts of land and banana groves, police said. They took some of the people to the grassy area, where the killings started.

Authorities found 24 bullet-riddled bodies sprawled on the ground next to five abandoned vehicles.

Police, aided by a backhoe, worked most of Tuesday to extricate the bodies from the mass grave. All had been shot multiple times and were dumped on top of one another. One was a pregnant woman.

Grieving relatives helped identify their loved ones before they were given the bodies, covered by banana leaves, for burial.

In all, 21 women and 25 men died, said military spokesman Col. Jonathan Ponce.
The gubernatorial candidate, Ismael Mangudadatu, was not in the convoy because he had received death threats. He said he met with the defense secretary, national police chief and military commanders to demand justice and the immediate arrest and prosecution of the killers of his wife, two sisters and other relatives.

Mangudadatu said four witnesses in his protection, whom he refused to identify, told him the convoy was stopped by gunmen loyal to Andal Ampatuan Jr., a town mayor and rival, to prevent Mangudadatu's family from filing election papers.

"It was really planned because they had already dug a huge hole (for the bodies)," Mangudadatu said.

He said there were reports from the area that the militia had been blocking the road for a few days.

Police said they were investigating reports that Ampatuan and dozens of policemen and pro-government militiamen were among the gunmen who blocked the convoy.

Maguindanao's acting governor is Sajid Ampatuan, another son of former Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. The powerful Ampatuans, who have ruled the impoverished province unopposed since 2001, are expected to run again next year. The clan could not be reached for comment.

The family helped deliver votes for the Arroyo administration in 2004 elections. Human Rights Watch expressed concern Wednesday that the administration's relationship with the clan would hinder an impartial investigation.

Arroyo's peace adviser, Jesus Dureza, said he met Tuesday with Andal Ampatuan and received assurances that his family would cooperate in the probe.

It was not clear how far Arroyo's administration would go in trying to force the provincial warlords to give up their weapons and private armies.

Police said Maguindanao's provincial police chief and three other officers were relieved of duty and confined to camp after they were reported to have been with the militiamen who stopped the convoy.

Such militiamen are meant to act as an auxiliary force mobilized by the police or military to fight rebels and criminals, but often act as private enforcers of local warlords.

Much of the southern island of Mindanao, including Maguindanao province, used to be ruled by fiercely independent sultans who fought Spanish and American colonizers. The political dynasties of the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus behave in a much similar way — ruling by force, unopposed in their turfs with little outside interference.

Julkipli Wadi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, said he doubted the national government's resolve in trimming the powers of political dynasties like the Ampatuans because they deliver votes during elections.
"Because of the absence of viable political institutions, powerful men are taking over," he said. "Big political forces and personalities in the national government are sustaining the warlords, especially during election time, because they rely on big families for their votes."

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