MANILA, Philippines — The heir of a powerful clan was charged Tuesday in connection with the Philippines' worst political massacre – an ambush in which 57 people, more than half journalists, were slaughtered.
Three witnesses, who escaped because their car was at the tail end of the election convoy that was attacked in a southern province Nov. 23 , said they saw Andal Ampatuan Jr. and about 100 gunmen, including police officers, stopping the cars, prosecutor Al Calica told The Associated Press.
Hours later, troops found bullet-riddled and hacked-up bodies near the highway sprawled in the grass and hastily buried with a backhoe in three mass graves.
Ampatuan turned himself in last week. He has denied the charges.
He is the scion of a clan allied with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that has ruled Maguindanao unopposed for years. His father – the family's patriarch – and six other family members also are considered suspects but have not been charged.
The massacre was a bloody prelude to elections scheduled for May. Campaign violence is relatively common in the Philippines – 130 died in the run-up to the last elections – but the brazen convoy attack was shocking for its ruthlessness and scale.
Arroyo has declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao and a neighboring province and ordered troops and police to confiscate unlicensed weapons and restore order. But few think the measures will go far enough in a lawless region notorious for political warlords that has been outside the central government's control for generations.
Prosecutors initially filed 25 counts of murder against Ampatuan in southern Cotabato city, whose regional trial court is nearest to the massacre site in Ampatuan township. Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said she will ask the court to try the case elsewhere, fearing witnesses may become reluctant to testify over fears for their safety.
"The evidence is strong," Calica said, adding that at least 10 witnesses provided written testimonies linking Ampatuan to the killings.
The caravan was carrying 30 journalists and the wife, two sisters, an aunt and several supporters of Ampatuan's rival, Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao's Buluan township.
Mangudadatu had sent his relatives to file his candidacy papers to run for governor in the May elections because he said Ampatuan had threatened to chop him to pieces if he attempted to challenge the clan's ironclad control. Mangudadatu has said he believed female family members would not be harmed.
In a statement to prosecutors, Mangudadatu said his wife called him on a cell phone, saying her convoy had been blocked by about 100 gunmen led by Ampatuan, who was then approaching her.
"He slapped me," Mangudadatu quoted his wife as saying before the line went dead. Her body was later found peppered with 17 gunshot wounds, according to an autopsy report.
"The ghastly scenario during the retrieval of their bodies show the unspeakable horror they must have undergone as they were ... massacred," the prosecutors said in a case document submitted to the court. The AP obtained a copy of the document.
Authorities said earlier that they have taken six police officers into custody, including the Maguindanao provincial police chief and his deputy. Two inspectors among them were allegedly seen with Ampatuan during the massacre, said Erickson Velasquez, head of the police criminal investigation division.
One of the six, Chief Inspector Sukarno Adil Dicay, told investigators that he had stopped the convoy at a checkpoint for routine security checks along with 16 other policemen.
He said that Ampatuan, armed with a rifle, suddenly arrived with 100 gunmen wearing camouflage fatigues who robbed the people in the convoy of cell phones and other belongings. Dicay said that he was outnumbered but he pleaded with Ampatuan not to shoot the civilians.
Ampatuan and the gunmen herded the convoy away, Dicay said in a written statement, which was submitted to police officials.
He said that Ampatuan threatened to kill him and his policemen if they let any other vehicles through the checkpoint to follow them.
Prosecutors said that the killings were carefully planned and that more charges will follow. At least one witness alleged that the Ampatuan clan had gathered in the patriarch's mansion in the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak days before to plan the killings, said chief state prosecutor Jovencito Zuno.
The graves were dug in advance and a backhoe positioned to bury the bodies, prosecutors said.
The Ampatuans denied any responsibility in the killings in a rare news conference in Shariff Aguak on Sunday.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski, Teresa Cerojano and Oliver Teves contributed to this report.