Local politician named as suspect in Philippines massacre

Security forces investigating the Philippines massacre earlier this week have identified Andal Ampatuan Jr., a close ally to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as a suspect.

Philippine security forces named a prominent politician, Andal Ampatuan Jr., as a prime suspect Wednesday in the investigation into a massacre of his political rivals in the southern island of Mindanao two days ago.

The naming of Mr. Ampatuan – a member of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's governing coalition – comes amid increasing pressure on Arroyo to pursue justice in a case that involves a close ally.

Monday's massacre in Maguindanao Province shocked the nation with its scale. In the attack gunmen surrounded and then shot a convoy of supporters of rival Ismael Mangudadatu as they traveled to register his candidacy for upcoming provincial elections.

On Wednesday Philippine security forces found 11 more bodies at the site of the massacre, raising the death toll to 57. President Arroyo declared a national day of mourning, and more security forces were deployed to the area to maintain order.

Though the police had earlier said the perpetrators were likely to be Ampatuan loyalists, Wednesday was the first time they specifically named Andal Ampatuan Jr., Agence France-Presse reported.

"According to the initial reports, those who were abducted and murdered at Saniag were initially stopped by a group led by the mayor of Datu Unsay," national police spokesman Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina said.
The mayor of Datu Unsay is Andal Ampatuan Jr., a member of Arroyo's ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD coalition and son of an extremely powerful regional politician…
The military had previously named bodyguards hired by the Ampatuan clan as the suspected gunmen in Monday's massacre….
However, the police spokesman's comments were the first time Ampatuan Jr has been specifically named as a top suspect in the massacre, which took place in a village on the outskirts of a town that bears the clan's name.

CNN adds that both the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans have agreed to participate in the government's investigation into the killings.

According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippine National Police are conducting a search for the man who operated the backhoe believed to have been used to bury some of the victims of Monday's attack.

Chief Supt. Leonardo Espina, PNP spokesman, said on Wednesday the backhoe operator may lead police investigators to the identities of the armed men who held hostage and later executed the victims….
Espina said the backhoe, emblazoned with the name of Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., was apparently used to dig up the graves where some of the bodies were found.

The Inquirer also reports that police lawyers are investigating the final telephone exchange between Mangudadatu and his wife, which could be a crucial piece of evidence in the prosecution of suspects related to the massacre.

Mangudadatu said he received a text message from his wife, shortly before the massacre, that their six-car convoy had been blocked by men of the Ampatuans and that Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. had even slapped her.

ABS-CBN reports that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) deployed more troops on Wednesday to help maintain order in Maguindanao. According to AFP spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., air gunships are being used to conduct pursuit operations against the suspects. Moreover, a total gun ban is in effect in the province, and the extra troops are tasked with checking for firearms.

The question remains as to whether the government will crack down on the Ampatuan family, which helped secure votes for Arroyo in previous presidential elections, the Christian Science Monitor noted.

…[S]trong words and highly publicized manhunts have become common after political killings in the Philippines, while successful prosecutions have been rare. Some analysts are convinced the Ampatuan family will remain in power….
Arroyo may face greater pressure to pursue justice in this case because of the uproar it has created. Since so many local journalists were killed, the government is under fire not only from the Philippines' National Union of Journalists but also from international organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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