x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Philippines massacre toll rises to 46

Maguindanao police chief is sacked as 24 more bodies are found in a mass grave while four survivors of attack are said to be in hiding.

The bodies of victims are recovered following the massacre of at least 46 people on Monday.
The bodies of victims are recovered following the massacre of at least 46 people on Monday.

MANILA // Investigators recovered 24 bodies from shallow graves in the southern Philippines yesterday, taking the death toll in Monday's massacre of a political convoy to 46 as the government placed two provinces and a city under indefinite emergency rule.

The provinces of Maguindanao, scene of the bloody attack, and Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City were placed under emergency rule that gives police and the military sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina, a spokesman for the Philippine National Police, told local television yesterday that 24 bodies had been recovered from a remote hilly area not far from the provincial capital, taking the total number of dead to 46.

Earlier, the national police announced it had sacked the provincial director of police, Chief Inspector Zukarno Adil Dicay, for his alleged involvement in the massacre and said he was now under investigation. The police did not say whether he had been taken into custody or restricted to the local police barracks. The national police also corrected earlier reports that many of the bodies had been beheaded. It said all the dead had been shot at close range and none of them beheaded.

Reports on Monday night claimed many of the bodies had been beheaded, mutilated, run over by lorries and in some cases cut up using chainsaws. Human rights and media groups condemned the killings - the worst case of political violence in recent Philippine history - and demanded that there be no whitewash in the investigation. Among those killed were prominent members of the Mangudadatu political clan.

The convoy was ambushed by more than 100 heavily armed men as it made its way to the provincial electoral office in Shariff Aguak, where they intended to file nomination papers for Ismail Mangudadatu, who is running for governor of the province in next year's national elections. His wife, sisters and other members of the family were among those killed in the attack. Mr Mangudadatu decided to send his wife and female relatives in the belief his political rivals would not hurt them, in consideration of Islamic tradition to respect women. Another factor was that residents in the provincial capital are fiercely loyal to the governor and there were genuine fears for his safety.

The attackers are said to be linked to the powerful Ampatuan family, which has ruled Maguindanao, in south-western Mindanao, for a decade and has close ties to the administration of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Four people who survived the attack are said to be with Mr Mangudadatu. Speaking on local television yesterday, he said the four had witnessed the ambush and could identify the leaders.

Local reporters who travelled to the scene of the massacre said the victims were executed. One journalist reporting for ANC television said the plan had been to execute everyone and bury them and their cars in a mass grave. The plan was cut short after a military patrol, reacting to witness reports to the earlier abduction, were seen nearing the site. According to Mr Espina, Mr Dicay, the former provincial police director, was seen with a group headed by the mayor of Datu Unsay, Andal Ampatuan Jr, who is a son of the provincial governor.

As of last night no arrests had been made and the four survivors had not been interviewed by investigators appointed by the government. Marites Vitug, a prominent journalist and the author of several books on Mindanao said: "The problem with policing in Mindanao is that the governors pick their police directors and the PNP in Manila simply rubber stamps their appointments. "In other words the local police are beholden to the governor and act on his orders."

The Philippine interior secretary, Ronaldo Puno, said he expected charges will be filed "within a day or two". "We already have the names of those possibly involved in the massacre," he said. "There will be no sacred cows and no political solutions." Mrs Arroyo, said to be shaken by the massacre, has ordered the military, police, the Commission on Human Rights and the National Bureau of Investigation to jointly investigate Monday's attack.

In a statement she said: "There will be no untouchables during the course of the investigation." Governor Ampatuan is a close ally of the president and delivered to her election run a huge number of questionable votes in the 2004 presidential balloting, followed by a clean sweep in the midterm elections in 2007. He has managed to build up a well-trained, well-equipped private army of more than 500 men all with the government's blessing.

He has been instrumental in helping the military flush out renegade member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and has earned the respect of several military commanders over the years. Media groups condemned the killing of journalists who had travelled with the convoy to report on the filing of Mr Mangudadatu's papers. The fact he was challenging such a powerful figure as Mr Ampatuan was a major story for local journalists.

"The frenzied violence of thugs working for corrupt politicians has resulted in an incomprehensible bloodbath," said Reporters Without Borders on its website. "Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day," it said. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the attack was the biggest tragedy that Philippine journalism had ever suffered.

Twelve journalists have been verified as dead, but the NUJP said as many as 34 could be the final tally. foreign.desk@thenational.ae