The powerful Ampatuan family, suspected of involvement in a massacre of political rivals in the southern Philippines, took several blows Thursday as the investigation into the killings expanded.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. – the mayor of the town where the murders occurred, and a suspect in the case – surrendered himself to authorities. The ruling party of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stripped him and two family members of party membership. And authorities said they planned to investigate the entire Ampatuan clan.
Despite the actions, doubts persist as to whether President Arroyo will pursue justice against her political allies. The Ampatuans effectively control Maguinadanao province in Mindanao island, and delivered its votes to her in the last presidential election.
(Read the Monitor’s report about the Ampatuan clan here.)
Also on Thursday, Filipinos held a day of national mourning for the 57 victims.
The massacre occurred three days ago, when supporters of Ismael Mangudadatu journeyed to register his candidacy for governor of Maguindanao. The current governor, Andal Amaptuan Sr., had been grooming his son for the job. As their political rivals traveled, 100 gunmen surrounded the convoy and shot everyone, including Mr. Mangudadatu's wife, Genalyn, his two sisters, and 21 journalists.
In a statement issued late on Wednesday, Arroyo's party, the Lakas-Kampi CMD, said it no longer considered Ampatuan Jr., his father, or his brother (another local governor) "members in good standing." It relieved them of their party duties, the Manila Times reported.
On Thursday morning, Ampatuan Jr. turned himself in at Shariff Aguak, in Maguindanao, where he was met by the president’s adviser on Mindanao, Jesus Dureza. The two "hugged each other,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, then boarded a helicopter to fly to an airport where Ampatuan took a private plane to Manila.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno denied at a press conference Thursday that the government had made any prior deals with the Ampatuan family. He said law enforcement officials would investigate the entire clan.
"There has never been any appeasement. There has never been any negotiation. The families of the suspect have been told what our position is on the matter. As an example, if Datu Unsay Ampatuan would not have boarded the helicopter to bring him to General Santos City and then to Manila today, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police were prepared to take action and exert all physical force to make sure that the suspect would be brought to the inquest," he told reporters, according to ABS-CBN News.
Meanwhile, more details of the gruesome massacre emerged. An anonymous witness told Al Jazeera that the attackers had raped all of the women in the convoy before killing them and dumping their bodies in a pre-dug mass grave. The man said he had been among the gunmen and gone into hiding in fear for his life.
"[Ampatuan Jr.] himself said... anyone from the Mangudadatu clan – women or children – should be killed," he said. "We don't ask why, we just follow orders."