Martial law declared in southern Philippines

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The Independent Online

Philippines troops arrested 62 people and discovered another major weapons cache yesterday after martial law was imposed in a southern province following the country's worst political massacre.

Thousands of troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, have taken control of Maguindanao province in a government crackdown on the powerful Ampatuan clan, accused of killing 57 people travelling in a convoy of a political rival on 23 November. The clan has denied any involvement.

President Gloria Arroyo imposed martial law in Maguindanao late on Friday, the first use of martial law in the Philippines since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared it nationwide more than 30 years ago.

The government says it feared the Ampatuans, who have ruled unopposed over predominantly Muslim Maguindanao for years, were fomenting rebellion in response to the crackdown on them since the massacre. Those arrested so far include the clan's patriarch, at least six other family members, and clan followers, said the national police chief, Jesus Verzosa.

The arrests came as 39 high-power firearms and crates of ammunition were dug up yesterday at a farm believed to be owned by the Ampatuans near Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital. Troops and police were pursuing 4,000 armed followers of the Ampatuans, some reportedly massing in eight Maguindanao towns. Security forces have sealed off Maguindanao's exit points and mounted checkpoints.

The martial law proclamation allows troops to make arrests without court warrants. Pro-democracy advocates have accused Ms Arroyo of overreacting. A group of human-rights lawyers plans to challenge the martial law in the Supreme Court today.