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Two describe frenzied Philippines massacre

The prosecutors are given details of the slaughter as two men are put in a witness protection programme.

A relative weeps at a wake held for victims of the massacre.
A relative weeps at a wake held for victims of the massacre.

MANILA // The quiet grassy hillside just outside the provincial capital of Maguindanao in the southern Philippines continues to give up its dead almost a week after 64 people, including women and journalists, were butchered in a frenzied attack said to have been politically motivated.

And as a 36-hour self-imposed deadline passed yesterday, state prosecutors had still not formally filed multiple murder charges against the man named as the prime suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr, the son of the provincial governor, one of the most powerful warlords in the country. As the Philippines continues to reel from the full horror of what took place last Monday more bodies were recovered from the lush green hillside a few kilometres from Shariff Aguak, taking the death toll to 64, 27 of whom were local journalists.

The Philippine justice secretary, Agnes Devanadera, told local radio yesterday that two people who were directly involved in the killings had come forward and given sworn affidavits giving detailed descriptions of how the massacre was planned and executed. She said the witnesses were brought to General Santos City, where they were placed in the government's witness protection programme. "They really saw how the crime was planned and committed," she said.

The prosecution has now collected statements from more than 20 witnesses since Mr Ampatuan surrendered to the authorities on Thursday, Mrs Devanadera said. She said she expected more people to come forward in the coming days, including people who had taken part in the massacre, which involved more than 100 armed men. What is not clear is whether those who took part in the mass killings and have turned state's evidence will be charged.

Mrs Devanadera said: "We have a witness who was at the meeting where Ampatuan gave instructions for the massacre." According to a local media report, one witness has claimed that the guns used in the massacre are still in mansions owned by the Ampatuan clan. The family has dominated politics and business in the provinces for a decade, often using brutal force. The witness was quoted as saying the guns confiscated by local police were not the ones used in the massacre. He also claimed that the guns and ammunition used in the massacre had been bought from the Philippine armed forces. "Those people were killed using guns and ammo from the government," he is reported to have said.

The problem facing the prosecutors is trying to keep the identities of the witnesses secret. Mr Ampatuan has denied involvement in the killings and the justice secretary said on Friday that in all nine members of the powerful clan were now under investigation in a crime that has not only shocked the country but brought condemnation from around the world. Last Monday a convoy carrying the wife of a local politician, female relatives, lawyers and journalists made its way to the provincial capital to file nomination papers for Ismail Mangudadatu, who was challenging Mr Ampatuan for governor of Maguindanao in next May's national elections.

The convoy was flagged down at a militia-run checkpoint and escorted off the main road into nearby hills outside the capital, where a series of mass graves had already been dug. What followed was nothing short of barbaric. It has now been claimed that women were raped, some people executed and others hacked up with chainsaws and stuffed into cars and buried. The journalists who had tagged along to cover the filing of Mr Mangudadatu's nomination papers were not spared either.

Mrs Devanadera said seven counts of murder will be filed against Mr Ampatuan on Tuesday. She said the delay in filing charges within 36 hours as she had promised was due to the Eid al Adha holiday. The Ampatuans are considered close allies of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and her administration and were credited for Mrs Arroyo's victory in the 2004 presidential election. They were also credited with delivering her a 12-0 victory in the 2007 midterm election for the senate.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae