Wednesday, November 25, 2009

US calls on Manila to investigate Maguindanao massacre; Ampatuans expelled from Lakas-Kampi-CMD party

Members of the League of Filipino Students and Atenews light candles in Davao City in the southern Philippines as a symbol in condemning the massacre of dozens of journalists, human rights lawyers and innocent civilians in Maguindanao province in the Muslim autonomous region. (Photo by Karlos Manlupig)

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / November 25, 2009) – The US Embassy on Wednesday urged Manila to investigate the brutal killings of journalists and civilians blamed by authorities to a key political ally of President Gloria Arroyo in the southern Philippines.

Authorities have retrieved at least 57 bodies on a remote village in the town of Ampatuan where police and soldiers also unearthed three vehicles from a makeshift grave. At least 20 journalists killed in the attack were recovered. Most of the victims were shot and beheaded.

Police have linked Andal Ampatuan, Jnr.,- the mayor of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao province – to the killings of more than 60 people mostly supporters of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, and including at least 34 journalists and two human rights lawyers.

Both Ampatuan and Mangudadatu are political opponents and running for the gubernatorial post in May 2010 elections. Ampatuan, whose father Andal Ampatuan Snr., and elder brother, Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, are all allies of Arroyo.

Police said more than 100 armed men allegedly led by Ampatuan abducted and killed the victims, including the wife and two pregnant sisters of Mangudadatu who were on their way to the Commission of Elections in Shariff Aguak, hometown of the Ampatuan clan, to file the nomination of the vice mayor.

The US Embassy in Manila condemned the mass killings and urged the Arroyo government to spare no effort in investigating the murders and prevent such violence in the months ahead.

“Such barbaric acts violate the most fundamental principles of human rights and democracy,” said Ambassador Kristie Kenney. “We strongly believe that a thorough, rapid, and transparent investigation must be conducted, and those responsible must be brought to swift justice.”

Governor Rene Miguel Dominguez, of Sarangani province, and president of the ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD party, said the Ampatuans were expelled from the government coalition.

He said former Defense chief Gilberto Teodoro, Lakas-Kampi-CMD party national president, released this statement late Wednesday: "Lakas-Kampi-CMD no longer considers former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr. and ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan as party members in good standing for their failure to uphold party ideals and principles in their area of jurisdiction, specifically relating to the peaceful, legal, and democratic pursuit and exercise of political power.”

“Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., and ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, being both the actual and symbolic heads of the Ampatuan clan, are now considered expelled from the party and relieved of their duties and responsibilities as the party provincial chairman for Maguindanao and regional chairman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, respectively."

A regional army spokesman Colonel Jonathan Ponce said more than 600 soldiers were deployed on Wednesday on top of the 400 already hunting those responsible in the gruesome murders.

“Another army battalion, about 600 soldiers, arrived today in Maguindanao from Samar in central Philippines, to help track down the perpetrators of this heinous crime,” Ponce said, adding, more troops are expected to arrive to the province in the coming days to join the search for the gunmen.

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 said.

President Arroyo placed 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 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels also linked the powerful Ampatuan clan to 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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