By James Mananghaya (The Philippine Star)
MANILA, Philippines - Forty-Seven persons – including a politician about to file her and her brother’s certificates of candidacy (COCs), as well as journalists covering the event – were confirmed killed when heavily armed men waylaid the group on its way to the local Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Maguindanao.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Information Office chief Lt. Col. Romero Brawner confirmed that as of yesterday afternoon, ground troops had recovered 21 bodies – 13 women and eight men – from the massacre site in Barangay Saniag, Ampatuan town.
Supporters of Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu and Mangudadatu Vice Mayor Eden Mangudadatu and their
companions were on their way to the Comelec office to file COCs at around 10:30 a.m. when they were blocked at a checkpoint manned by some 100 Maguindanao police personnel and armed civilian volunteers allegedly led by Datu Unsay town mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr.
Reports from the Army’s 6th Infantry Division reported that a certain Police Senior Inspector Dicay of Shariff Aguak accompanied Ampatuan. Three vehicles owned by the Mangudadatu’s were found burned.
Toto Mangudadatu, who was not with the convoy, is reportedly eyeing the gubernatorial seat in the May 2010 elections and had asked his wife to file his COC.
Aside from Bai Eden, the other victims were identified as Genalyn Tiamzon-Mangudadatu, the vice mayor’s wife who was raped before being killed; lawyers Connie Brizuela and Cynthia Oquendo and her father, Bai Farinah Mangudadatu; Faridah Sabdulah; Manguba Bai Mangudadatu, Toto’s aunt; Farida Mangudadatu, Toto’s youngest sister.
The journalists were identified as Ian Toblan, Leah Dalmacio, Gina dela Cruz, Joy Duhay, Andy Teodoro, Mac-Mac Areola, Bart Maravilla of Bombo Radyo Koronadal, Henry Araneta of dzRH Cotabato, Bong Reblando of Manila Bulletin and Neneng Montano of local radio dxCP.
Also reported killed were Rasul Daud, driver of Mangudadatu, Wahida Ali Kaliman, Farida Sabdula, Zorayda Vernan, Victor Nuñez, Zaida Abdul, Pinky Balayman, Ella Balayman, Rahima Piopo, Abdullah Hajji, Patrick Pamansan, Meriam Calicol, a certain Unto and a certain Chito, and eight others who were not included in the list.
Toto said his wife and her companions left Buluan town at about 9 a.m. on board several vehicles and were flagged down by armed men at Barangay Kauran in Ampatuan, Maguindanao some 30 minutes later.
“Six members of the group that was to bring my certificate of candidacy to Shariff Aguak were beheaded by the gunmen that flagged them down at a portion of a highway near Shariff Aguak. The police and the military have to do something,” Mangudadatu told Catholic station dxND in Kidapawan City.
“I opted not to provide armed security escorts to the group to avoid possible tension during the filing of my COC,” he added.
The Mangudadatu clan is known to have a long-running feud with the family of Maguindanao’s incumbent Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., who police said is known to have his own private army.
Reporters have been trying to get information on the incident from the spokesman of the 6th ID, Col. Jonathan Ponce.
He, however, has not responded even if his staffers have confirmed that he is just inside the Army camp.
Sources from the Army’s 601st Brigade said unidentified armed men indeed flagged down several vehicles at a portion of the Cotabato-Isulan Highway in Kauran area, which is at the boundary adjoining Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces.
The provincial police director of Maguindanao could not be reached for comment.
The tension worsened when text messages started circulating that the gunmen executed and killed four of the reporters who were with the group.
Local officials in towns at the border of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat said they still have to confirm from barangay leaders the veracity of the text messages that four journalist that accompanied the wife of Mangudadatu had been decapitated.
A source who requested anonymity said the victims were shot at random, and some were decapitated with chainsaws.
The same source added that the killers used a backhoe to dig mass graves where the victims were buried.
Brig. Gen. Medardo Geslani, chief of the army’s 601st Infantry Brigade, said they are now validating the reports.
Palace up in arms
Malacañang expressed shock and outrage over the executions and vowed that justice would be served.
Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio said the Palace is still trying to determine the facts behind the incident.
“We are in shock and total outrage,” Claudio said. “Justice will be served and the perpetrators will be punished, whoever they are.”
Presidential Adviser for Mindanao Jesus Dureza recommended to President Arroyo to immediately declare a state of emergency in Maguindanao.
“This is a gruesome massacre of civilians unequalled in recent history. Even women and working mediamen were not spared. I grieve for my friends in the media and all those killed while doing their job,” Dureza said in a statement.
“There must be a total stop to this senseless violence and carnage. I strongly recommend that a state of emergency be imposed in the area and everyone disarmed. Anything less will not work,” he said.
Claudio said he had a brief meeting with ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan at the Palace to discuss Sulu politics.
Ampatuan was accompanied by outgoing Sulu Rep. Munir Arbison and other local officials. They sought a meeting to be assured of fair arbitration from the leaders of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD, as Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan is also fielding his own local slate against Arbison’s group.
He said there was no discussion about Maguindanao politics.
NUJP condemns abduction of mediamen
Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the abduction and death of their colleagues.
“We demand that government, from Malacañang to the (ARMM) and Maguindanao, and its security forces, move swiftly to resolve this crisis and ensure that no harm befalls the hostages; and, if true that violence has been inflicted on some of the hostages, to ensure swift justice on the perpetrators, no matter who they are,” the NUJP said in a statement.
“Taking hostage someone about to file a certificate of candidacy is, by itself, a brazen challenge to efforts to strengthen our admittedly fragile democracy. And, if true that a local government official and a police officer are involved, then it says a lot about how far government has gone to eradicate the warlord politics that continues to reign over many of our provinces, very often the poorest and most underdeveloped,” the NUJP added.
“But to take hostage journalists who were merely going about their job of informing the public worsens the already heinous crime and elevates it into an assault on the Constitution itself and the freedom of the press and of expression it enshrines, and the people’s right to know which these freedoms serve,” NUJP said.
Pimentel: Send the Marines
At the Senate, minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. recommended sending the Marines to Maguindanao to control the peace and order situation.
Pimentel condemned the killings, which came on the heels of the filing of COCs for local and national posts.
He also said that the military should take control of the area to avoid further bloodbath.
“It’s going to lead to a bloodbath unless the government steps in. Arrest and jail whoever is responsible even if he might be a warlord. Send the Marines if need be,” Pimentel said. –With John Unson, Edith Regalado, John Paul Jubelag, Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero