Arroyo's ally to be charged over massacre

Suspect accused of killing political rivals in Philippines hands himself over to police
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The Independent Online

Andal Ampatuan Jnr, the member of a powerful pro-government clan suspected of involvement in the massacre of 57 people in an election caravan in the southern Philippines earlier this week, will be charged with murder today, the Philippines' chief prosecutor said yesterday. Mr Ampatuan turned himself in amid mounting pressure on President Gloria Arroyo to crack down on lawlessness and warlords.

The dead from Monday's massacre included at least 18 journalists and the wife, family and dozens of supporters of a candidate for governor who wanted to challenge the rival Ampatuan clan, which has ruled Maguindanao province unopposed for years. Mr Ampatuan, a town mayor, allegedly stopped the convoy with dozens of police and pro-government militiamen.

Asked by reporters if he was involved in the killings, Mr Ampatuan, who tried to hide his face with a scarf, replied: "There is no truth to that. The reason I came out is to prove that I am not hiding and that I am not guilty."

His surrender followed days of discussions between his family and Jesus Dureza, a presidential adviser, apparently in an attempt to prevent hostilities breaking out between the clan's followers and government forces.

The area around the provincial capital was tense after troops disarmed nearly 400 pro-government militiamen loyal to the Ampatuans. Such militias are meant to act as an auxiliary force to the military and police in fighting rebels and criminals but often serve as politicians' private armies. The military deployed tanks and truckloads of troops throughout the province under a state of emergency to hunt down the attackers and prevent retaliatory violence from the victims' clan.

The Ampatuan clan helped President Arroyo and her allies win the 2004 presidential and 2007 senatorial elections by delivering crucial votes. But in an emergency meeting on Wednesday, Ms Arroyo's ruling party expelled Mr Ampatuan, his father and a brother.

Police and soldiers on Wednesday found 11 more bodies at the site of the attack, bringing the death toll to 57. Six of the bodies were discovered in a large pit, buried alongside three vehicles, and five were found in a nearby mass grave.

The vehicles – a sedan and two vans – were crushed by a large mechanical digger that ran over and buried them, investigator Jose Garcia said.

Police Chief Superintendent Felicisimo Khu said they did not expect to find any more bodies.

Ms Arroyo has come under intense pressure at home and abroad to seek justice for the victims of the massacre, with the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and media and human-rights watchdogs voicing their concern over the scale of the killings.

The candidate, Ismael Mangudadatu, had received death threats and sent his wife and relatives to submit his candidacy on Monday in the convoy that was ambushed. Mr Mangudadatu said that four people whom he refused to identify told him that Mr Ampatuan was seen with the gunmen.

Ms Arroyo promised justice for the victims. Few, however, think she will be able to restore the rule of law in the impoverished region that has been outside the central government's reach for generations. Six senior police officers, including the provincial police chief and his deputy, 20 members of Ampatuan township's police station and 347 militiamen were in custody.