Maguindanao massacre death toll rises to 46—police
Police on Mindanao island pulled bullet-ridden bodies from shallow graves in this remote farming area after gunmen allegedly employed by a local political chief abducted then shot dead a group of rival politicians and journalists.
“Some bodies were strewn on the ground. Most were recovered from under lumps of earth which were stained with blood,” said Chief Superintendent Josefino Cataluna, the regional police commander.
"They were piled on top of each other. It looked as if they were buried hurriedly," said Cataluna.
Twenty-two bodies had previously been found beside a dirt road nearby following Monday's killings by gunmen allegedly linked to the area's political kingpin.
The group abducted associates of a rival politician and at least 20 journalists from General Santos City and nearby provinces who were covering them.
“But we have yet to finalize our tally as we are still talking with the relatives of the victims,” Cataluna said.
Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina, PNP spokesman, said the bodies would be taken to Buluan town, Maguindanao province, after the police have conducted an autopsy on the bodies and conferred with the victims’ relatives.
Most of the victims bore gunshot wounds, Espina said.
National police chief Jesus Verzosa, who flew to the south to supervise the investigation, said he feared the death toll could rise with several other members of the kidnapped party of more than 40 people still missing.
"We still have to check one other suspected mass grave," he added.
"We expect more bodies from other areas," Cataluna said.
Journalists on the scene said a mechanical digger was emblazoned with the name of the Maguindanao provincial governor, Andal Ampatuan, whose bodyguards had been blamed by the military as being behind the massacre.
The victims were among a group of more than 40 people abducted by gunmen Monday linked to Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan, head of a Muslim clan who is part of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's ruling coalition.
The abducted group was made up of relatives and associates of Esmael Mangudadatu, the head of a rival Muslim clan in Maguindanao, plus a group of journalists, the military and police said.
The group was traveling in a convoy to accompany or report on Mangudadatu's wife as she went to an electoral office to register her husband to run for governor against Ampatuan's son in next year's national polls.
Authorities warned the death toll would climb higher as they sought to deal with the incident.
"It's a big area where these bodies were found. They are finding a couple of bodies every a couple of hours or so," Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said as he described a farming area covered in hastily dug graves.
Puno said the extra bodies being recovered were on top of the the official death toll, but he would not speculate on how many people in total had been murdered.
"They are still looking for some missing persons. A number of other bodies were found. I can't really reveal the details now. It's a large number," Puno said in a television interview.
Espina said Verzosa and other senior police officials flew to Maguindanao early Tuesday to personally check on the area and supervise the manhunt against the perpetrators of the killings.
He said Verzosa ordered the relief of Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay, the deputy provincial police chief of Maguindanao, after he was supposedly seen with the armed men who abducted and killed the victims.
Additional police troops were also deployed in the area to prevent a possible rise of hostilities in the area.
Political violence is common in the Philippines – where more than one million unlicensed guns proliferate – and dozens of people are murdered each election season.
But the scale of Monday's massacre, as well as the targeting of apparently unrelated people, has shocked the country.
Fourteen of the victims were women and some of them were journalists with no apparent links to the clan war, the police and military said.
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Romeo Brawner said the Ampatuans and their associates were believed to have been responsible for the massacre.
"The suspects are bodyguards of Ampatuan, local police aides and certain lawless elements," Brawner said.
As thousands of soldiers fanned out across the Ampatuans' stronghold in search of the gunmen on Tuesday, sickening details of the massacre emerged.
The military said about 100 armed men stopped the convoy of vehicles on a remote section of highway near the town of Ampatuan, which bears the same name as the political kingpin.
Police said the bodies of the victims were found a few kilometers (miles) away, with a bulldozer apparently used to dig the graves still on the scene.
Police said 15 of the victims appeared to have been shot inside their vehicles while one was believed to have been cut down by gunfire while fleeing.
"All were shot at close range," said one of the investigators on the scene, Chief Superintendent Felicisimo Khu.
Asked about the allegations by some of the victims' relatives that the murdered women were also raped, Khu said: "We cannot confirm that although all the women had their pants unzipped."
The Ampatuan clan is the longtime political kingpin of Maguindanao, a mainly Muslim section of Mindanao Island which has been wracked by a Muslim separatist rebellion for decades.
The Ampatuan patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., has been governor for the past nine years and wants his son and namesake to succeed him.
The Ampatuan clan has been important in delivering votes to Arroyo's ruling Lakas Kampi-CMD coalition in recent elections. The Ampatuan father is the provincial chair of the coalition in Maguindanao.
Puno vowed the government would be impartial as it pursued justice.
"I just want to assure everybody that we are doing everything necessary here, that there will be no sacred cows," Puno said.
"This is going to be a direct investigation of the crimes that have been committed and we are going to hold the persons responsible for this."
Panahon na na ibalik ang parusang kamatayan sa ating bansa para sa ganitong klaseng krimen. Hindi matatahimik ang Mindanao kung ang pamahalaang Pilipinas ay walang kakayahang magpapatupad ng ating batas doon. Umaaboso na ng husto ang mga taong may hawak na baril doon na hindi naman otorisado ng pamahalaan. Panahon na at kinakailangan na talaga na ipakita ng pamahalaan ang kanyang kamay na bakal sa lugar na iyon.
At any cost, dapat disarmahan na ang lahat na may "illegal weapons" doon. Babantayan ng militar ng maigi ang lahat ng mga "backdoors" na dinadaanan ng mga "illegal weapons" doon.