Philippines pulls out 1,000 police in massacre area

Wed Dec 2, 2009 6:46am EST

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines has ordered the pullout of 1,000 police officers from a southern province where 57 people were murdered last month in the country’s deadliest election-related crime, a police spokesman said on Wednesday.

The pullout was meant to pave the way for an impartial investigation into the massacre after a handful of police officers were linked to the killings, which included 30 local journalists, said Leonardo Espina, spokesman of the Philippine National Police.

He said combat-trained law enforcement teams from other parts of the country would be sent to replace the entire police units assigned in several towns under the control of the powerful Ampatuan clan in the southern province of Maguindanao.

Hundreds of soldiers took control of two mansions of the Ampatuan family on Wednesday, restricting their movements as state prosecutors rushed to file murder charges against five more members of the family, including the patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr, suspected of involvement in the killings.

The elder Ampatuan has come under investigation after he was linked by witnesses to the massacre because he had ordered the movement of an excavator used in digging pits where bodies and vehicles were buried, police authorities said.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno has also ordered an audit of public offices under the control of the Ampatuans, while lawmakers wanted the government’s anti-money laundering council to freeze the family’s bank deposits and other assets.

On Tuesday, state prosecutors filed formal murder charges against a member of the Ampatuan family for the massacre in a suspected clan-feud that has stoked tensions ahead of next May’s elections.

The Amputuans have denied involvement in the killings, blaming rogue Muslim rebels for the attack in which a convoy heading to an election office to file nomination papers for a member of the Mangudadatu family was ambushed by 100 armed men.

“They are not allowed to leave their mansions unless really necessary, that’s the order,” Colonel Leo Ferrer, an army brigade commander, told reporters, saying hundreds of troops with armored vehicles were posted outside the Ampatuans’ property.

But a military spokesman said the presence of soldiers was part of security measures because the Ampatuans, who have many political enemies including Muslim guerrillas, have lost their bodyguards.

Two members of a civilian militia force were also arrested on Wednesday, with one suspected to be among the gunmen because the rifle seized from him matched some of the bullet casings recovered at the massacre scene, Espina said.

[original]

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