AT LEAST 30 DEAD IN GRUSOME PHILIPPINES MASSACRE

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BY AL JACINTO and JOHN M. GLIONNA
The Los Angeles Times

Authorities discovered the bodies of at least 30 people who had been kidnapped early today in the southern Philippines and called the incident politically motivated slaughter.

The victims — at least 13 of them women — reportedly included a dozen journalists as well as lawyers and a woman who had planned to file her husband’s nomination for elections next year.

Many victims had been beheaded and buried, authorities said.

“This is a gruesome massacre of civilians unequaled in recent history,” said Jesus Dureza, a Maguindanao province official. “There must be a total stop to this senseless violence and carnage.”

The convoy of political activists was hijacked by an estimated 100 gunmen as they rode in several vans near the town of Ampatuan, said Army Col. Jonathan Ponce, a spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division. Ampatuan is a city in Maguindanao province, on the island of Mindanao.

The bodies were later found about three miles away. Philippine military troops were searching for at least a dozen more victims who also had been among the group.

“Many of them [were] beheaded, including probably journalists,” Ponce said. “Troops are in the area and tracking down those responsible in these killings.”

The group included the wife of Buluan township Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu, along with his two sisters, supporters and local journalists.

Officials say they were en route to nearby Shariff Aguak township to file Mangudadatu’s nomination papers for the position of governor of Maguindanao province.

In a statement, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo condemned the violence.

“Civilized society has no place for this kind of violence,” she said. “No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law.” Eid Kabalu, a leader of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, called the attacks “gruesome.”

“What we learned is that at least 41 people were seized in Ampatuan town,” he said, “and many of these were reported killed, including women.”

Late today, the Philippines National Press Club criticized what officials called the withholding of information by authorities on the fate of the journalists.

“We were shocked and grieved to hear what happened to our colleagues,” said club President Benny Antiporda.

He said the group would hold a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening at the headquarters of the National Police and the Armed Forces to protest what he suggested was government stonewalling.

“We appeal to the police, the military, the public officials to forget their friendships and other relationships with others and give priority to the search for justice for our brothers,” Antiporda said.

Human-rights activists said they believed a dozen journalists had been killed. “The Philippines is a very dangerous place for reporters, especially in the south,” said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

“There is a large culture of violence, nepotism and impunity to law and order,” Brossel said. “There are influential rich and powerful people who do whatever they want. But if this number is confirmed, it will be the biggest slaughter in this country in many years.”

Philippines deputy presidential advisor Lorelei Fajardo said authorities “should immediately identify whoever are responsible for this, in order for the government to show the people that we will not allow this kind of violence.”

Elections in the Philippines are traditionally violent, especially in the southern provinces.

On May 14, more than 45 million Filipinos will go to the polls to choose among 87,000 candidates vying for 17,000 national and local positions — including 268 House seats and half of the 24 currently seated in the country’s Senate.

Mindanao is home to numerous armed groups, including Muslim rebels fighting for self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, and political warlords and gangs who wage war against one another.

Col. Romeo Brawner, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said authorities were still identifying the dead using identification cards and other documents found at the scene.

Troops have been sent to the scene to prevent retaliation.

“We launched rescue operations at 11:30 this morning,” he said. “Unfortunately, it turned out to be a recovery operation.”

Jacinto is a freelance writer based in Mindanao. Sol Vanzi, a freelance writer based in Manila, also contributed to this story.

See Related: WORLD POLITICS

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