Mon, Jul 05, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Philippines orders better protection of massacre witnesses

WALKING FREEOne hundred gunmen from the powerful Ampatuan clan are still at large and taking orders after the murders of 57 people late last year

AFP , MANILA

The Philippines ordered greater protection yesterday for witnesses implicating a powerful Muslim clan in the country’s worst political massacre.

Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s directive came as police said they had arrested two suspects in the killing of a key witness against the Ampatuan clan for the murders of 57 people in November last year.

“A special team of prosecutors is sitting down with police on how to firmly and effectively address the spate of killings, violence and harassment of witnesses,” de Lima said.

“The stepped up efforts include the immediate tracking down and arrest of the others accused,” she said.

She said close to 100 Ampatuan gunmen remained at large and continued to receive orders from their jailed patrons.

“For as long as they’re still physically out there, and seemingly with resources and communication access to and from their big bosses, the atmosphere of violence and climate of fear will subsist,” de Lima said, adding that authorities needed to “neutralize” the threat they posed.

The Ampatuan clan, which ruled southern Maguindanao province for a decade, enjoyed political ties with former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo, who used the family’s huge private army as a force against separatist rebels.

Arroyo stepped down last week and her successor, Philippine President Benigno Aquino, has promised justice for the victims’ families.

Six clan members are among 196 people charged in connection with the murders, allegedly carried out to prevent a rival from running as governor of the province, which he eventually won in May.

Top suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr allegedly led about 100 armed militiamen who stopped a convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu and executed 57 people, including Mangudadatu’s wife and a group of journalists.

A former Ampatuan gunman turned witness, Suwaib Upham, who would have placed Ampatuan Jr at the crime scene, was gunned down last month in the clan’s stronghold of Maguindanao province.

Two months earlier an uncle of another witness was also shot and killed, while the witness’ lawyer was recently wounded in a gun attack.

Police said yesterday they had arrested two suspects in Upham’s murder, but no other details were available.

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