Philippine massacre witness implicates suspects

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The first witness to testify against a powerful clan member accused of leading a pre-election massacre of 57 people in the southern Philippines said Wednesday he saw the defendant and his family firing guns as victims knelt and begged for their lives.

The testimony came on the second day of the murder trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr., the top suspect in the Nov. 23 killings of journalists, relatives and supporters of a rival who was challenging Ampatuan for the governorship of Maguindanao province in May elections.

Ampatuan, the only one indicted so far in the deaths, has pleaded innocent to murder charges. His father, clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., and several other close relatives have been implicated but not formally charged in the killings. They also face separate charges of rebellion.

Rasul Sangki, vice mayor of Ampatuan township, told the court he witnessed the killings after Ampatuan summoned him to a road checkpoint where police officers stopped the caravan in which the victims were traveling.

“I went with him because I was scared,” Sangki said. “If I did not follow him, he might get mad at our family. He is feared in our province.”

He said the victims were ordered at gunpoint to lay face-down and then were divested of money, cell phones and TV cameras.

They were then herded back into their cars and led to a hilltop clearing several miles (kilometers) away, Sangki said.

Sangki testified that he heard Ampatuan speak to someone on a radio, saying “Father, they are here.” The voice on the other end replied, “You know what to do,” Sangki told the court.

As gunshots rang out, the victims pleaded for their lives and women screamed. One of the journalists pleaded with Ampatuan to spare his life, Sangki said. Armed with a shotgun, Ampatuan shot him as well as the sister and wife of his election rival, Esmael Mangudadatu.

“They finished them to make sure they were dead,” Sangki testified.

Following the slaughter, Sangki said that Ampatuan told him to return to the checkpoint “and tell the people they saw and heard nothing.”

Among those killed were at least 30 journalists and their staff in what is considered the world’s deadliest single attack on media workers. The carnage has sparked international outrage, prompting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to briefly impose martial law in Maguindanao to crack down on the powerful clan — once a key political ally — and its private army.

Arroyo’s political backing of the clan, which helped her win crucial votes during the 2004 elections, had allowed the Ampatuans to maintain a long-standing iron grip on Maguindanao, a predominantly Muslim province about 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Manila, the International Crisis Group, a prominent think tank, said last month.

Arroyo’s aides have acknowledged her close alliance with the Ampatuans but said that did not authorize them to commit crimes. The Ampatuans were expelled from Arroyo’s ruling party after the killings.