Philippine family plotted massacre over dinner, says servant

A servant of the politically powerful clan accused in last year's massacre of 57 people told a Philippine court yesterday that the family members plotted the killings of rivals and journalists over dinner six days before the ambush.

The witness, Lakmudin Saliao, took the stand on the first day of the trial. The massacre in southern Maguindanao province on 23 November exposed the shocking violence of Philippine politics. Among the dead were 30 journalists travelling in an election convoy – making it the deadliest single attack on reporters in the world.

The patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Snr, had gathered his siblings over dinner to ask them how they could stop their political rival from running for provincial governor, one of the key regional posts that the Ampatuans had held and exploited for years, Mr Saliao said.

Former mayor Andal Ampatuan Jnr, the scion of the clan and prime suspect in the massacre, replied: "That's easy. If they come here, just kill them all," Mr Saliao told the court. He said the elder Ampatuan then asked his children if they agreed with the plan, and according to Mr Saliao, "Everybody laughed, saying, 'It's OK for everybody to be killed.'"

Mr Saliao said the Ampatuan patriarch ordered that his rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, should be stopped on a highway where he was supposed to pass on the way to file his candidacy papers.

It was on a hilltop near the highway that troops recovered the 57 bodies gunned down and hastily buried in mass graves dug by a mechanical digger. Mr Mangudadatu, who was later elected governor in the May elections, had sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives accompanied by journalists in the belief that women wouldn't be harmed.

On the day of the crime, Mr Saliao said Mr Ampatuan Jnr told his father by mobile phone – its loudspeaker on – that he had blocked the convoy. The father ordered him to spare the media, to which Mr Ampatuan Jnr replied: "No... somebody could talk if we don't wipe out everybody."

Nena Santos, a lawyer for the Mangudadatus, described Mr Saliao's testimony as "a smoking gun". The Ampatuans have denied the charges. Mr Ampatuan Jnr, who wore a yellow prison shirt, smiled and whispered to a lawyer as Mr Saliao testified.

A senator, Joker Arroyo, has warned that the volume of the case – at least 227 witnesses are listed by the prosecution and another 373 by the defence – means it could drag on for "200 years".