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Suspects in massacre expelled from Philippines' coalition

The country's ruling body kicks out a provincial governor and his two sons as frustration grows over a lack of arrests in the investigation.

MANILA // The suspected mastermind of this week's massacre in the southern Philippines, his brother and their father, a powerful provincial governor and ally to the president, have been kicked out of the country's ruling coalition.

The president's adviser for political affairs, Gabriel Claudio, said the national executive held an emergency meeting last night to discuss the killings on Monday - the death toll rose to 57 after more bodies were found yesterday - and unanimously approved a motion to expel the three. The governing body was reacting as well to growing frustration over the slow pace of the investigation and the fact that no arrests have been made yet despite police having named Andal Ampatuan Jr, the son of the Maguindanao governor, as their prime suspect.

Mr Ampatuan's brother, Zaldy, also held a powerful post on the southern island of Mindanao, of which Maguindanao province is a part. Mr Claudio said all three had been booted out of the coalition. The motion was made by Gilbert Teodoro, the Lakas-Kampi-CMD party chairman. Mr Teodoro, the the former defence secretary, is a candidate for president. Police have still not arrested any of the Ampatuans, saying that all the evidence must be gathered first.

The police spokesman, Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina, told media yesterday that Andal Ampatuan Jr, the mayor of Datu Unsay, was the chief suspect. Mr Ampatuan had widely been expected to run in the election to replace his father. "According to the initial reports, those who were abducted and murdered were initially stopped by a group led by the mayor of Datu Unsay," Mr Espina said. Also, there have been complaints that despite the imposition of a gun ban, police and the military have done nothing to disarm the private armies and militias in the province of Maguindanao, the scene of the massacre.

Prosecutors have been flown in from neighbouring provinces to help prepare cases because local prosecutors have either left the province or refused to take part in any legal action that may follow out of concern for their lives. The Philippine Senate is expected to open its own investigation into the killings when it resumes next Wednesday. Police and volunteers using a mechanical digger, shovels and bare hands cleared dirt from a mound on a grassy hill near the scene of Monday's attack. They uncovered a buried car and more bodies.

A convoy carrying the local politician Ismail Mangudadatu's wife, his sisters, relatives, lawyers, friends and journalists was attacked Monday morning by at least 100 heavily armed men as it made its way to the provincial capital to file Mr Mangudadatu's papers for next year's elections. Mr Mangudadatu is standing for governor of the province. Mr Mangudadatu sent his wife after having received threats from the Ampatuan clan. He believed that as Muslims they would not harm women. The journalists followed in the convoy because it was a major local political story. The actual number of those travelling with the group is unclear; police say it was at least 60. At least four people managed to escape and are now being protected by the Mangudadatus. The four have named Mr Ampatuan as one of the leaders of the attack.

It was reported yesterday that at least two motorists who got caught up in the convoy were also killed. The massacre has been described as the worst case of political violence in the Philippines in modern times. A diplomatic source, speaking on the condition he was not identified, said: "This country is starting to resemble a failed state. Three days after the killings, eyewitness accounts and key players identified and no arrests? You have to ask yourself: what is going on?"

The Philippines has now earned the dubious reputation of being the most deadly place on the planet for journalists. As of yesterday, 18 local journalists had been identified among the dead. The International Federation of Journalists in a statement yesterday criticised the failure of the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, to tackle the crisis of impunity in the killing of journalists and media staff in recent years.

Mrs Arroyo has declared a national day of mourning after she declared a state of emergency in the province, giving police and military sweeping powers of arrest and detention. "The Arroyo administration must make a clear and unequivocal commitment to an immediate, independent and effective inquiry into this atrocity," Aidan White, the general secretary of the journalists' federation, which is based in Brussels, said in a statement.

"With elections due in six months' time, the authorities must act now to guarantee the safety of journalists throughout the country." Since Mrs Arroyo came to power in 2001 at least 74 journalists have been killed - not including those murdered on Monday. Of the 50 who have been charged with the killings, 17 have been arrested and only four convicted, according to police data. As politicians on both sides of the political divide call for arrests, the undersecretary of the department of justice, Ricardo Blancaflor, said a special team of prosecutors from General Santos City and Cotabato will head the government's investigation into the killings. He also indicated during an interview that any trial that may come out of the investigation may be held in Manila for security reasons.

"We have due process to be observed also, so let us allow the investigators on the ground to come up with [a case] through their investigation," Cerge Remonde, Mrs Arroyo's press secretary, told local television. Asked why the president had not fired Mr Ampatuan from his post as mayor, Mr Remonde said the relief and arrest of Mr Ampatuan would come "only after the police have found sufficient evidence" that would link him to the slayings.

The Ampatuan family has ruled Maguindanao for more than a decade with total impunity. It is a powerful political force backed by a militia. The governor, Andal Ampatuan, is said to be a personal friend of Mrs Arroyo and until last night was a leading member of the ruling coalition. The fact that police have named the governor's son the prime suspect but have not arrested or questioned him has led many to fear that the massacre will be whitewashed.

Cito Beltran, a columnist, writing in the Philippine Star yesterday, said: "Law enforcement and military officials failed by omission or by consent to enforce the laws of the Philippines and allowed warlords to walk the land with weapons and killers, unchallenged." And he added: "In Maguindanao they were killed like animals and dumped like garbage. And while their families were in mourning, this administration was in Paradise." On Monday the cabinet met in the tropical island tourist resort of Boracay for a cabinet meeting.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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