By Manny Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine police filed murder charges on Thursday against the main suspect in the massacre of 57 people in the south of the country this week as authorities moved to dismantle his clan’s control over the region.
Andal Ampatuan Jr, a local mayor in Maguindanao province, came face to face with Esmael Mangudadatu, husband of one of the women murdered, who filed multiple murder complaints before state prosecutors in southern General Santos City.
Ampatuan was flown out from Maguindanao province by an army helicopter after he was handed over by his brother to a senior government official and a top regional army general.
“The charges are baseless,” Ampatuan told reporters at the airport in General Santos. “They are not true. My conscience is clear.”
Authorities said Ampatuan would be held in a prison in Manila while undergoing investigation by state prosecutors in advance of the complaint going before a local court.
On Monday, about 100 armed men attacked a convoy carrying members of the Mangudadatu clan, who were on their way to file the candidacy of Esmael for the provincial governor’s post in elections next year.
The attackers herded the victims to a remote hillside and attacked them with M-16 rifles and machetes. At least 10 of those killed were motorists who were passing by on the highway and had apparently witnessed the abduction.
Not all the victims have been identified but 22 of them were believed to be journalists accompanying the family, making Monday’s attack the deadliest ever on the media anywhere in the world.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has called the Ampatuans valuable political allies in the past, but her government announced moves against the family on Thursday after the massacre sparked worldwide condemnation.
“I am requesting the investigation of the provincial governor and other mayors relative to this case,” Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told reporters, adding those officials should be suspended while facing an inquiry.
Clan wars like the feud between the Mangudadatus and the Ampatuans are common in the southern Philippines. There are also many communist and Islamist rebels, bandits and pirates there.
Andal Ampatuan Sr, the patriarch of the family, has been elected governor of Maguindanao three times. He quit the post earlier this year and placed a son as officer in charge.
Another son, Zaldy, is governor of a separate Autonomous Region covering six provinces in Muslim Mindanao.
Many other family members are mayors across the province.
On Thursday, soldiers took over town halls and the capitol building in Maguindanao and disarmed a 350-member paramilitary force under the control of the Ampatuans. The authority of local officials to supervise police forces was also revoked, Puno said.
The Lakas-Kampi-CMD party, the ruling group in congress, expelled Andal Sr, Andal Jr and Zaldy Ampatuan from the alliance.
“We feel that they have failed to exercise their moral and actual authority over their clan members which is most probably the cause of the incident,” said Gilberto Teodoro, who is the administration’s candidate for the 2010 presidential elections.
“We don’t delve into their culpability under law but their membership in this party ends.”