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Philippine Massacre Suspect Turns Himself In, Military Still Pursuing Gunmen

VOA News 26 November 2009

The main suspect in a brutal massacre of 57 people in the southern Philippines has turned himself in to authorities but has not been formally arrested. The Philippine military is still pursuing gunmen loyal to the man, Andal Ampatuan Jr., who are believed to have carried out the killings to stop a political rival.

Andal Ampatuan Jr. on Thursday turned himself in to Philippine authorities. He is now being investigated on suspicion that he was behind one of the worst cases of election-related violence in the country's history and the largest massacre of journalists.

Ampatuan and his militia are suspected of being behind the abduction and killing Monday of a convoy of supporters of his political rival, Ismael Mangudadatu, and at least 18 journalists accompanying them on the southern island of Mindanao.

They were stopped at a checkpoint by a militia as they were going to register Mangudadatu to challenge Ampatuan for governor of Maguindanao province in next year's elections.

Ampatuan told journalists he was innocent as he was being taken to Manila, where he will be investigated along with four police officers suspected of taking part in the massacre.

Romeo Brawner is a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He says although there are four witnesses who say the men were at the scene of the crime, they have not been formally arrested, and authorities are expected to decide in the coming days whether or not to lay charges against them.

"We need direct evidence," he said. "As of now, we only have the testimonies of the witnesses who said these people were present in the checkpoint. But, as to the actual abductions and the actual killings, we don't have any witnesses yet."

Election-related violence is all too common in the Philippines, where powerful clans use local militias to enforce their will while delivering votes to central authorities to stay in their good favor.

The Ampatuan family has for years dominated politics in Maguindanao. But, the brutality of the attack has shocked Philippine society and pressure is growing on the government to crack down on the families who run parts of the country as if it is their own fiefdom.

Brawner says the military is still pursuing the militia believed loyal to Ampatuan who are believed to have fled to a mountainous area of Maguindanao. He says the military now has about 3,000 troops deployed in the area who have occupied the provincial capital and disarmed a militia of 357 men.

"As of noon today all of their firearms have been recovered and inspected. As to the personnel they will still be under the custody of the Armed Forces to the Philippines as they will be subjected to investigation," he said.

Brawner says other members of the Ampatuan family are also being investigated for links to the killings.

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