MANILA // Thousands of troops fanned out across the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao yesterday, hunting down groups of heavily armed men said to be loyal to a local warlord who the government alleges "rebelled against the state".
The president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in a statement to Congress gave details of groups loyal to the Ampatuan clan. Her interior secretary, Ronaldo Puno, told a briefing of foreign correspondents in Manila yesterday that rebels had already engaged in one firefight with security forces on Sunday. He said the gun battle lasted 10 minutes, but there were no injuries. At the same briefing, the military and police gave detailed accounts of major arms caches uncovered in and around homes owned by members of the Ampatuan clan. They said homemade armoured cars were found with 50-calibre machineguns mounted on the back in a warehouse owned by the Ampatuans along with cars marked "Pulisya" that were not police vehicles.
Lt Col Romeo Brawner, a military spokesman, said the authorities had recovered enough weapons over the past few days to arm two army battalions - about 1,000 men. The haul included 883 guns of various calibres, grenade launchers, bazookas and more than 430,000 rounds of ammunition. Mrs Arroyo declared martial law in the province on Saturday, claiming that a rebellion had broken out against the authority of the state.
Mr Puno would not name who was behind the rebellion, nor would the justice secretary, Agnes Devanadera, who was also present at the briefing. The declaration of martial law came nearly two weeks after 57 people, including 30 journalists, were massacred on a hilltop near the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak. The son of the local governor, Andal Ampatuan Jr, has been charged with 25 counts of murder.
Last weekend, the governor, Andal Ampatuan Sr, and nine members of his family were arrested for rebellion. Analysts said the rebellion charges might be a smoke screen to deflect attention from the more serious charge of mass murder. Mr Puno claimed that the government had no alternative but to declare martial law after the machinery of local government - which has been dominated by the Ampatuan clan for nearly 10 years - had broken down.
"We could not get judges to sign arrest warrants; government lawyers had gone on leave and government offices were not functioning - this was a rebellion against the Republic of the Philippines," he said. "Local government is an extension of the government," he said. "But these people did not have their allegiance to the republic of the Philippines. Instead they were aligned with the local authority."
He said that by November 26, three days after the massacre, "it became apparent that the local law enforcement was doing the bidding of the local officials and not the Republic of the Philippines". He said more than 1,000 armed men, split into groups and loyal to the Ampatuans, were now roaming the countryside. Earlier the military in Maguindanao put the number at more than 3,000. Mrs Arroyo, in a 20-page letter to Congress on Sunday, said martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus were necessary as the Ampatuans had amassed a small army consisting of 2,413 heavily armed men.
Some of them were strategically deployed in nearby provinces of Mindanao in groups varying in size from 50 men to 500. She claimed they had moved into "offensive positions". Some had armoured vehicles, some had bazookas and mortars, the president claimed. The rebels are said to be connected to 16 towns in the province all controlled by the Ampatuans. There are 22 towns in the predominantly poor Muslim province of 700,000 people.
Meanwhile, the country's Supreme Court is being asked to nullify the declaration of martial law. In a petition filed yesterday, Didagen Dilangalen, a Maguindanao congressman, said the president could declare martial law only "in case of rebellion or invasion". "There is no such thing as imminent threat of rebellion or looming rebellion. There is no such thing as armed or public uprising in the area," he told local television station ANC.
Members of the country's Senate and Congress are to decide today if the declaration is legal or not. firstname.lastname@example.org