MANILA // The son of a powerful Philippine war lord who is facing multiple murder charges after Monday's massacre of 57 people, including women and 27 journalists, turned himself in yesterday in the southern province of Maguindanao. Andal Ampatuan Jr left the walled family compound in a convoy of black SUVs mid-morning for the short drive to the provincial capital, Shariff Aguak, which had been secured earlier by the military, fearing an outbreak of violence from those loyal to the family.
Mr Ampatuan, wearing a black jacket with a black and white kaffiyeh covering his head and face, was met by Jesus Dureza, the president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's adviser on Mindanao affairs. He was embraced by family members before being led to a military helicopter for the short flight to General Santos city. He was not handcuffed. At General Santos, he was turned over to the secretary of the department of justice, Agnes Devanadera, and was taken to a lounge where the state prosecutor heard evidence against him. He also came face to face with Ismail Mangudadatu, whose wife was one of the victims of the massacre.
After burying his wife yesterday morning, Mr Mangudadatu travelled to General Santos City to file a complaint of multiple murder, robbery, and theft against Mr Ampatuan. Justice department officials were preparing inquest proceedings against Mr Ampatuan, who is the mayor of Datu Unsay and the son of the province's governor. Mr Ampatuan was later flown to Manila in a government aircraft and taken to Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters where he is in the protective custody of the department of justice.
According to the justice secretary, the evidence will be assessed and a decision will be made whether or not to prosecute Mr Ampatuan within 36 hours. Zamzamin Ampatuan, undersecretary for energy, told local television that the family had told his nephew to "turn himself in". He denied his nephew was involved in the killings, and broke down halfway through the interview, pleading for the violence to stop. "Why should we go through this?" he said.
In an interview broadcast on Al Jazeera television, a man who claims to have witnessed the killings said Andal Ampatuan Jr had paid the men to kill all those travelling in the convoy. "We were ordered to kill all the Mangudadatu's [a rival political clan] - women and children," he said. "We didn't ask why, we just followed orders," said the masked man who gave his name only as "Boy", a common nickname in the Philippines. He is now said to be in hiding, fearing for his life, but claimed he would be willing to swear an affidavit. He said he was part of the group but was "frozen with horror" with what he saw.
He said holes were dug earlier and the journalists were ordered to be killed to be rid of witnesses. He told Al Jazeera that the operation took between one and two hours. "But someone called and said the military was coming so we left everything - didn't have time to finish burying everyone," he said. The president's press secretary, Cerge Remonde, said Mr Ampatuan would "not be given any special treatment".
"The inquest and the subsequent filing of charges against Andal Ampatuan Jr is just the beginning. The government will be relentless in bringing to justice all responsible for the gruesome Maguindanao massacre," he said. "President Arroyo wants all the culprits punished without fear or favour," he added. Jesus Verosam, a chief of police, told a press briefing in Manila yesterday that he had removed Maguindanao's police chief, ordered the sacking of officers in a number of towns and the local militias.
Speaking at the same press conference, the secretary for interior and local government, Ronaldo Puno, said he would recommend that President Arroyo "suspend indefinitely" all provincial officials in Maguindanao including the governor, Andal Ampatuan Senior. He said the suspension was necessary for what he called "an impartial investigation of the gruesome massacre". Monday's atrocity was the result of a feud between two powerful clans - the Ampatuan and the Mangudadatu. Once close allies, the two clans had fallen out in recent years, with the local politician Mr Mangudadatu intending to challenge Mr Ampatuan in next year's election for governor of the province. The Ampatuans have ruled Maguindanao for a decade and the family is loyal to Mrs Arroyo.
Mr Puno said he wanted the Maguindanao governor and all the province's mayors to be suspended because of their close ties with their respective local police forces. Three police officials in Maguindanao have already been relieved of their duties and are being investigated for their alleged involvement in the massacre - the Maguindanao deputy director chief inspector, Sukarno Adil Dicay; the Ampatuan police chief, Badawe Bakal; and the inspector Ariel Diongon. Apart from Mr Ampatuan and the four police officials, 347 members of the local militia known as the Special Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary were also being investigated, police said.
Fearing an outbreak of violence, the military moved in overnight to secure the provincial capital and a number of cities and towns in the province known to be loyal to the Ampatuan clan. Whether or not charges are officially laid within the next 36 hours remains to be seen as the Philippine justice system is known to be notoriously slow. Email:email@example.com