Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More bodies, vehicles retrieved from Maguindanao graves in southern Philippines

Family and friends pay their last respect to one of two lawyers Concepcion Brizuela killed in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines after her remains are brought to Kidapawan City on Wednesday, November 25, 2009. The Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao condemned the brutalkillings of Concepcion Brizuela and Cynthia Oquendo, both members of the group, and journalists and innocent civilians. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Geo Solmerano).

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / November 25, 2009) – Police retrieved more bodies on Wednesday in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao as the search for slain journalists and civilians continued the past 3 days.

Police pulled out two cars and a media van buried in a pit and covered with earth on a remote village in the town of Ampatuan.

Security forces have so far recovered 52 corpses, including at least 13 journalists, since Monday after more than 100 gunmen allegedly led by a town mayor, Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., abducted and killed more than 60 people.

Most of the victims were supporters of Ampatuan’s political opponent, Buluan town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, and journalists who joined the group to cover the filing of his nomination for the gubernatorial election next year.

Ampatuan is also eyeing the gubernatorial post which is being held by his father, Andal Ampatuan, a key ally of President Gloria Arroyo, including his son, Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, the current governor of the Muslim autonomous region to where Maguindanao province belongs.

One of three journalists, who were supposed to cover the filing of Mangudadatu’s nomination but had been left behind, said the massacre could have been prevented only if the military provided security to group.

“Before the group headed for Maguindanao, we asked the military – the 6th Infantry Division - if it was safe to travel and its commander said it was okay. We asked them for security escorts, but they said it was the job of the police. The troops only arrived hours after the massacre despite the reports that the journalists and the others were being held by more than one hundred gunmen in Maguindanao,” the journalists told the independent newspaper, the Mindanao Examiner.

He said at least 34 journalists were in the group. But an army spokesman, Colonel Jonathan Ponce, said the military cannot provide escorts to politicians, but the police because the law prohibits them from doing so during election period.

“The army pulled out one battalion of soldiers last week and deployed them to other areas, leaving them with not enough force to guard the province against possible rebel attacks,” Ponce said.

Among those killed and probably raped were the wife of Mangudadatu and her two pregnant sisters. Mangudadatu said the killings would not deter him from running in the gubernatorial election in May.

Mangudadatu’s elder brother Ibrahim Mangudadatu, who is the mayor of Buluan town, said the total number of bodies recovered in the area has risen to 49 and they are still for more corpses as other reports claimed that more than 60 people had been killed.

“As of now, the total number of bodies recovered is 49. Two bodies were recovered today inside a car and a van of UNTV buried in the village in Ampatuan town,” the mayor said.

But the military said the number has risen to 52.

It was unknown whether the two were journalists or not, but President Arroyo put Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces under a state of emergency to prevent retaliation and more bloodshed, but authorities have so far not arrested any of those linked to the gruesome murders.

The elder Mangudadatu said they have allowed an autopsy in the bodies oh his brother’s wife and sisters who were probably raped by their attackers. “We are leaving everything to (forensic) investigators until they get all the pieces of evidence they need. The outcome of these investigations is important,” he said.

He said the backhoe used in burying the victims and the two vehicles is owned by the Maguindanao provincial government. The mayor said the Ampatuan linked to the carnage have not been investigated.

“We hope they would get him (Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr.) soon,” Mangudadatu said.

The powerful Ampatuan clan was also linked by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in previous violence in the region.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines branded the killings of journalists as barbaric and condemned the murders.

The European Union also condemned the killings. "I condemn in the strongest possible terms the barbaric killing on 23 November 2009 of innocent civilians, including women, journalists and lawyers, who were preparing to participate in the electoral process in the Philippines," EU external relations commissioner Benita Waldner said.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on Wednesday condemned the killings and called it “barbaric mass murder of defenseless civilians - including more than a dozen journalists.”

“We condole with the families of the murdered journalists, some of whom FOCAP members had occasion to work with in the past. These courageous media personnel were only doing their job to report crucial political developments in Mindanao and should not have been directly targeted by any partisan armed groups.”

“Their systematic and calculated killings are a direct affront to democratic principles,
and aim to strike fear and to muzzle free, fearless and balanced reporting,” it said.

FOCAP said the killings was the heaviest loss of lives for the Philippine media, possibly in the whole world, in a single day and comes on the heels of a series of many unsolved killings of Filipino journalists in recent years.

“The brutal, brazen and cold-blooded manner in which the victims were abducted in public then shot point blank shatters all sense of civility and concretely puts into question the capability of local authorities to protect ordinary civilians, including working journalists. The murderers have flourished in their territories and certainly felt they were above the law. It is a chilling prelude to the crucial 2010 presidential, congressional and local elections and erodes the public's sense of security and confidence on law enforcers,” the FOCAP further said. (Mindanao Examiner)

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