Toll in Philippine political massacre reaches 57 (Lead)

Manila, Nov 25 (DPA) Philippine security forces Wednesday dug up three vehicles and 10 more bodies from the site of a massacre linked to a political rivalry in the country’s troubled south, bringing the death toll to 57.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ponce, a regional military spokesman, said the vehicles and bodies were found at a second burial site in Salman village in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province, 930 km south of Manila.

Police officers and soldiers earlier found 22 bodies littered around the hilly area where the killings occurred Monday, while 25 were unearthed from a shallow grave Tuesday.

Chief Superintendent Josefino Cataluna, a regional police chief, said government forces would continue to search for victims at the site of the mass killing amid fears that more people were missing.

One of the buried vehicles was the service van of UNTV, a local television station, whose three news crew members were killed in the massacre blamed on political rivalry between two prominent clans in Maguindanao.

Another car that was dug up belonged to the son of a councillor in nearby Cotabato City, who was killed after he was mistaken to be part of the convoy, Cataluna said.

Amid mounting calls for the government to immediately arrest members of the Ampatuan family allegedly behind the horrific crime, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for calm while promising that the perpetrators would not escape justice.

“Let us hope that the outrage is overcome by reason and by our need to live our lives in peace, honour and human dignity,” she said. “In all of this, the rule of law, the guarantee of equal protection under and equal application of the law, and the observance of due process and all legal processes shall prevail.”

“Let the full force of the law bear upon those who are found to be responsible for this offence and be made accountable for their acts,” she said as she declared a day of mourning to be observed on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Arroyo placed Maguindanao, the nearby province of Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City under emergency rule to give police and the military a free hand to go after the perpetrators.

Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina, a national police spokesman, said the investigation on the murders was focused on the alleged involvement of the Ampatuan family, close allies of Arroyo, four police officials, and government militiamen.

“We are verifying the initial reports that implicated the Ampatuans in the killings,” he said.

Espina vowed that arrests would be made once criminal charges were filed in court.

The military ordered Wednesday that two companies of militiamen assigned to the military in Maguindanao be disbanded after they were implicated in the massacre.

“The order also includes that all guns, uniforms and ammunition issued to members of the (auxiliary teams) in Maguindanao be turned over to the military command,” armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said.

The two militia companies, which consists of more 200 men, were formed last year on the request of the Ampatuans to help the military fight the decades-old Muslim insurgency in the province.

The victims, who were shot multiple times at close range, were on their way to file the certificate of candidacy of Buluan town Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu for Maguindanao governor in next year’s elections.

They included Mangudadatu’s wife, two sisters, two human rights lawyers and at least 27 local journalists who were covering the event.

Mangudadatu’s candidacy would pit him against the son of incumbent Governor Andal Ampatuan Senior, who had run unopposed in three previous elections.

Mangudadatu said his wife told him before she was killed that they were being held by 100 gunmen led by Mayor Andal Ampatuan Junior on the orders of his father.

“I am frustrated that no suspects have been arrested,” he said. “If the suspects were ordinary persons, they would have been detained by now. Now that a big fish committed a gruesome crime, they cannot make arrests. Is the government afraid?”

The international community has condemned the murders, which United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called a “heinous crime”.

Ban said he hoped “that no effort will be spared to bring justice and to hold the perpetrators accountable”.

The Philippines is due to hold presidential and national elections in May. Elections in the country have traditionally been marred by violence, despite additional gun restrictions imposed during the campaign and polling periods.