The Philippine government declared martial law in a southern province Saturday as it vowed to crush the private armies of the region’s ruling clan that is accused of being behind the massacre of 57 people.
President Gloria Arroyo placed Maguindanao province under military rule late on Friday night in an effort to contain the militias belonging to the provincial governor and other members of his Muslim clan, the government said.
Martial law was also implemented to make it easier to bring the clan members into custody, presidential spokesman Cerge Remonde told reporters.
“President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has taken this bold step in answer to the cry for justice of the (relatives of the) victims of the Maguindanao massacre,” presidential spokesman Cerge Remonde told reporters.
Within hours of martial law being declared, special forces detained the province’s governor and patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Snr, who since 2001 had ruled Maguindanao with the backing of his own private army.
“He was taken at 2am (1800 GMT Friday) by Special Action Forces. He did not resist,” regional military spokesman Major Randolph Cabangbang said.
One of the clan chief’s sons, Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of an autonomous Muslim area in the southern Philippines, was also taken into custody on Saturday morning, according to the military.
Andal Ampatuan Jnr, another son of the clan patriarch, is already in a Manila detention centre after being charged with 25 counts of murder for the November 23 massacre that took place in a remote area of Maguindanao.
Police allege Ampatuan Jnr and 100 of his gunmen shot dead the occupants of a convoy that included relatives of his rival for the post of Maguindanao governor in next year’s elections, as well as a group of journalists.
The rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, said the killings were carried out to stop him from running for office. Many of his other relatives hold top posts in the province.
National police chief Jesus Verzosa said Saturday at least three other members of the Ampatuan clan were also wanted for their suspected links to the massacre.
Verzosa and the armed forces chief of staff, General Victor Ibrado, said martial law was imposed partly because many elements of the Ampatuans’ private armies remained on the loose.
“These are large forces that could undertake violent actions against anybody in the province,” Ibrado said.
“By their sheer number they are really a threat to the peace and order in the province.”
They said one of the triggers for the government’s dramatic action was the discovery on Thursday of a huge cache of weapons just a few hundred metres from the Ampatuans family compound in Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital.
The weapons inventory included three anti-tank recoilless rifles, five mortars, seven machine guns, rifles and pistols, and more than 100 boxes of bullets, the military said on Friday.
The cache was big enough to arm a battalion of 500 soldiers, according to the military.
Muslim rebels fighting for an independent homeland have been waging a rebellion on Maguindanao and other parts of Mindanao island since the late 1970s. The conflict has claimed more than 150,000 lives, the military says.
Arroyo’s government has used Muslim clans such as the Ampatuans to rule these areas, and allowed them to build up their own armies as part of a containment strategy against the insurgents.
However, critics have said this tactic has created warlords who act outside the law, with the massacre just the most dramatic example.
Andal Ampatuan Snr and Jnr, as well as Zaldy Ampatuan, were all expelled from the ruling coalition last week because of the massacre.