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Asia-pacific

Politician arrested for ordering massacre of 57 people pleads innocence

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-11-26

The prime suspect in a massacre that left 57 dead pleaded his innocence as he was taken into custody. The president’s ex-ally, Ampatuan Jnr, told reporters there was "no truth" in reports accusing him of masterminding the election-linked carnage.

AFP - The Philippine politician accused of masterminding an election-linked massacre that left 57 people dead declared he was innocent on Thursday as he was taken into custody.

Amid rising criticism about the perceived slow response to Monday's slaughter in the troubled south of the country, authorities finally took in Andal Ampatuan Jnr for questioning and announced sweeping security measures.

However Ampatuan Jnr insisted he did not orchestrate the horrifying killings in his home province of Maguindanao.

"There is no truth to that," Ampatuan Jnr told reporters at an airport in General Santos, a major city in the south, when asked whether he was behind the murders.

It was his first public comment since the massacre and was made after authorities took him into custody from his home and flew him by helicopter to the city of General Santos, from where he was to be flown to Manila.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno earlier told reporters in Manila that witnesses to Monday's massacre would also be brought with Ampatuan Jnr to the nation's capital to help authorities in their investigations.

However it remained unclear whether Ampatuan was under formal arrest.

Philippine government officials had been negotiating since Tuesday with Ampatuan's powerful family for him to submit to questioning.

The massacre occurred after about 100 Ampatuan gunmen allegedly abducted a convoy of aides and relatives of a rival politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, plus a group of journalists.

The victims were snatched as they were travelling in a six-vehicle convoy to nominate Mangudadatu as the opposition candidate for provincial governor in next year's elections.

They were shot at close range, some with their hands tied behind their backs, and dumped or buried in shallow graves on a remote farming road close to a town bearing the Ampatuan name.

Fifty-seven bodies have been recovered so far.

Ampatuan Jnr is the son of Maguindnao's governor, a Muslim clan chief of the same name who commands his own private army and until this week was a close ally of President Gloria Arroyo's ruling coalition.

Maguindanao is a part of the lawless Mindanao island, where Muslim clans rule vast areas backed by their own private armies, often out of the national government's control.

Ampatuan Snr had been grooming his son, currently a local mayor, to take over as governor of Maguindanao.

The victims' relatives alleged the Ampatuans organised the murders so that Mangudadatu would not run for that post.

In Manila, Puno said all the police from Ampatuan town were being investigated amid suspicions they were involved in the massacre.

"All members of the Ampatuan police station are under investigation for complicity in the crime," he said.

However, indicating the situation in Maguindanao province remained extremely volatile, the military said most of the Ampatuan family's militiamen alleged to have carried out the massacre were still on the run.

"Most of the armed group that perpetrated this crime have run away towards the mountainous area of Maguindanao," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said on ABS-CBN television.

"That is where we are conducting our pursuit operations."

The ruling Lakas Kampi CMD coalition late on Wednesday expelled both Ampatuans from the party.

Ampatuan Jnr's brother, Zaldy, governor of an autonomous region on Mindanao that includes Maguindanao, was also expelled.

"(They were) expelled for their failure to uphold party ideals and principles in their area of jurisdiction," the coalition's nomination for president in next year's elections, Gilberto Teodoro, said in a statement.

Date created : 2009-11-26

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