The Philippines placed two southern provinces and a city under emergency rule on Tuesday after gunmen killed 46 people in a brutal election-related massacre that has shocked the country.
Many of the victims in the killings in Maguindanao province were women from the powerful Mangudadatu clan. About a dozen journalists were also among the dead.
“There is an urgent need to prevent and suppress the occurrence of several other incidents of lawless violence,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said while announcing the emergency.
The adjoining provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat and nearby Cotabato City will be under an indefinite state of emergency, which gives the military and police wide powers of arrest and detention.
The orders were issued as troops, using shovels and their bare hands, dug up hastily covered graves on a grassy hillside in Maguindanao to recover the victims of Monday’s massacre. Police spokesman Leonardo Espina said 46 bodies had been found.
A Reuters photographer at the scene saw many of the bodies with bullet and machete wounds. Some of the dead men had their hands tied behind their backs and one of the women was pregnant.
“This atrocity leaves a deep wound in our national psyche,” said Ralph Recto, a former senator. “It is as if each one of us has been stabbed.”
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered extra troops to the region and sacked the Maguindanao provincial police chief.
“No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law,” she said.
The Mangudadatus, accompanied by lawyers and journalists, were on their way to file the nomination of one of their clan in elections next May. No men from the family were present, since they believed that women would not be attacked by rivals.
But the convoy was held up by about 100 armed men, who herded the group away from the highway and then attacked them with M-16 rifles and machetes.
The dead included Genalyn Tiamzon-Mangudadatu, whose husband Esmael wanted to contest the governorship of Maguindanao against Datu Andal Ampatuan, the head of another powerful local family.
Ampatuan, an ally of Arroyo, has been elected governor of Maguindanao three times previously. One of his sons is the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, an area which covers six provinces. The town near where the massacre took place bears the name of his family.
None of the Ampatuans made any comment to local or foreign media. But Presidential Adviser Jesus Dureza told television that the family was willing to answer any questions.
No arrests have been made so far.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said investigations would be completed within a couple of days and arrests made.
“There are no sacred cows,” he told television, adding that both the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus were allied to the government.
“We have some information about specific names, not just those who ordered this thing, but also those who committed it.”
The election process for the May 2010 national polls began last week with the filing of candidacies for more than 17,800 national and local positions.
Elections in the Philippines are usually marred by violence, especially in the south, where security forces are battling communist rebels, Islamist radicals and clan rivalries.
Many of the rich and powerful in the region employ private armies, which are often used to telling effect during elections.
Esmael Mangudadatu, Genalyn’s husband, told radio that four people had escaped the massacre and were under his care. “They will come out at the right time, they are safe with us,” he said. –REUTERS