Map of the Philippines showing Maguindanao province, now under a state of emergency
SANIAG, Philippines — The Philippines declared a state of emergency in parts of the volatile south on Tuesday as anger spiralled over a savage political massacre that left at least 46 people dead.
Police on Mindanao island pulled bullet-riddled bodies from shallow graves after gunmen allegedly hired by a local political chief abducted then shot dead a group of politicians from a rival clan and accompanying journalists.
As thousands of troops fanned out across the ultra-tense Maguindanao province on Mindanao, President Gloria Arroyo declared a state of emergency for the area that would allow curfews and road checkpoints to be imposed.
“No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law,” Arroyo said on national television.
National police spokesman Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina told reporters in Manila that 24 bodies had been recovered on Tuesday, on top of 22 that had been found on Monday.
Regional police commander Chief Superintendent Josefino Cataluna described a grisly search operation along an unpaved road in the isolated rural village of Saniag, saying 17 bodies had been pulled from just one grave.
Political violence is common in the Philippines — where more than one million unlicensed guns flow freely among a population of 92 million — and dozens of people are murdered each election season.
But the scale of Monday’s massacre, as well as the targeting of journalists with no links to the clan war, has shocked and deeply angered the country, as well as governments and rights groups around the world.
“The government must without question bring those responsible for this massacre to justice,” said Nonoy Espina, vice president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, amid reports at least 12 reporters died.
The European Union condemned the killings as “barbaric” while the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), set up to push for an international treaty to protect journalists, condemned the massacre.
“This crime against humanity, that surpasses all imagination, underscores the repeated calls of the PEC for an additional protocol or convention to protect journalists,” said the Geneva-based group established by journalists alarmed at the rising death toll among media workers worldwide.
Philippine authorities initially said a group of more than 40 people had been abducted by gunmen linked to Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, the head of a Muslim clan who is part of Arroyo’s ruling coalition.
The abducted group was made up of mainly female relatives and associates of Esmael Mangudadatu, the head of a rival Muslim clan in Maguindanao, as well as a large group of journalists, the military and police said.
The group was travelling in a convoy with Mangudadatu’s wife as she went to register her husband to run for governor against Ampatuan’s son in next year’s national polls. She was among those killed.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said the Ampatuans and their associates were believed to have been responsible for the massacre.
“The suspects are bodyguards of Ampatuan, local police aides and certain lawless elements,” Brawner said.
Maguindanao’s police chief was sacked and detained Tuesday “because of command responsibility” after his deputy and two other policemen were identified by witnesses as being present at the massacre, authorities said.
Sickening details of the killings emerged Tuesday.
“All were shot at close range,” said one of the investigators on the scene, Chief Superintendent Felicisimo Khu.
The bodies of two unidentified men had their hands bound in front of them, while another man who had been shot in the face also had a knife wound down his neck, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.
Local military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ponce told AFP that 21 of the recovered bodies were women, and 25 were men.
The Ampatuans are the longtime political rulers of Maguindanao, a mainly Muslim section of Mindanao which has been wracked by a Muslim separatist rebellion for decades.
The Ampatuan clan has been important in delivering votes to Arroyo’s ruling coalition in recent elections. The Ampatuan father is the provincial chair of the coalition in Maguindanao.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno vowed the government would be impartial as it pursued justice.
“I just want to assure everybody that we are doing everything necessary here, that there will be no sacred cows,” he told ABS-CBN television.
November 24, 2009