AMPATUAN, Philippines — A scion of a powerful pro-government clan has turned himself in and will face murder charges for allegedly leading the massacre of 57 people in an election caravan in the southern Philippines, the chief prosecutor said Thursday.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is under mounting pressure to crack down on lawlessness and warlords. The dead from Monday’s massacre included at least 18 journalists and the wife, family and dozens of supporters of a gubernatorial candidate who wanted to challenge the rival Ampatuan clan, which has ruled Maguindanao province unopposed for years.
Andal Ampatuan Jr., a town mayor who allegedly stopped the convoy with dozens of police and pro-government militiamen, surrendered Thursday to presidential adviser Jesus Dureza in the provincial capital, military commander Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said.
“The family voluntarily surrendered him and they agreed that he will be investigated,” Ferrer said.
As he was ferried from his home province, Ampatuan tried to hide his face with a scarf. Later, when he was asked by reporters if he was involved in the killings, Ampatuan, replied: “There is no truth to that. The reason I came out is to prove that I am not hiding and that I am not guilty.”
Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno said he has instructed his staff to work overnight to be able to meet a 36-hour legal deadline for filing charges following Ampatuan’s arrest. He is the only suspect identified so far.
Zuno said he expects the charges to be filed Friday in southern Cotabato city, which is closest to the massacre site, but the trial would take place in Manila.
“As of now, (Ampatuan) is the only one included in the charge, because investigation is ongoing and we expect further developments after this,” Zuno said.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said he had warned Ampatuan’s family they risked a military attack unless they turned him over by midday Thursday.
As a helicopter carrying Ampatuan took off from the Maguindanao provincial capital for General Santos, shots rang out but the aircraft was not hit, Ferrer said. It wasn’t clear who fired the shots.
The Ampatuan clan helped Arroyo and her allies win the 2004 presidential and 2007 senatorial elections by delivering crucial votes.
Arroyo’s ruling party, in an emergency meeting, expelled Ampatuan, his father and a brother.
Ampatuan’s surrender followed days of discussions between his family and Dureza, apparently in a bid to prevent hostilities between the clan’s followers and government forces.
The area around the provincial capital was tense after troops disarmed nearly 400 pro-government militiamen loyal to the Ampatuans. Such militias are meant to act as an auxiliary force to the military and police in fighting rebels and criminals but often serve as politicians’ private armies.
The military deployed tanks and truckloads of troops throughout the province under a state of emergency to hunt down the attackers and prevent retaliatory violence from the victims’ clan.
Police and soldiers on Wednesday found 11 more bodies at the site of the attack, bringing the death toll to 57. Six of the bodies were discovered in a large pit, buried alongside three vehicles, and five were found in a nearby mass grave.
The vehicles — a sedan and two vans — were crushed by a large backhoe that ran over and buried them, investigator Jose Garcia said.
Police Chief Superintendent Felicisimo Khu said they did not expect to find any more bodies.
Arroyo has come under intense pressure at home and abroad to seek justice for the victims of the massacre, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and media and human rights watchdogs voicing their concern over the scale of the killings.
The gubernatorial candidate, Ismael Mangudadatu, had received death threats and sent his wife and relatives to submit his candidacy Monday in the convoy that was ambushed.
Mangudadatu said four people whom he refused to identify told him Ampatuan was seen with the gunmen.
National police director Jesus Verzosa said six senior officers, including the provincial police chief and his deputy, 20 members of Ampatuan township’s police station and 347 militiamen were in custody for the investigation, but that not all were considered suspects.
Arroyo vowed justice for the victims. Few, however, think she will be able to restore the rule of law in the impoverished region that has been outside the central government’s reach for generations, and where warlords backed by private armies go by their own rules. Maguindanao’s acting governor is Sajid Ampatuan, another son of former Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan’s patriarch.