Manila – Twenty-one people, including journalists and human rights lawyers, were killed Monday in the southern Philippines in what appeared to be political killings, the military said.
At least 20 more were unaccounted for and feared dead in what presidential aide Jesus Dureza described as a ‘gruesome massacre of civilians unequalled in recent history.’
‘Even working women and media men were not spared,’ he said. ‘There must be a stop to this senseless violence.’
Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner, a military spokesman, said troops recovered 21 bodies in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province, 930 kilometres south of Manila.
Brawner said 13 of the victims were women and eight were men, but the identities were still being confirmed.
‘I’m afraid that there are more victims that are buried in the area,’ he said.
Buluan town Vice Mayor Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu said the victims included his wife, two sisters, three human rights lawyers and several local journalists.
‘They were all killed, beheaded,’ Mangudadatu said.
Brawner could not yet confirm how the victims were killed.
Supporters of the rival Ampatuan political family were suspected to be behind the killings, he said.
About 100 gunmen reportedly led by Shariff Aguak town Mayor Datu Unsay Ampatuan blocked three vehicles used by the victims before noon and brought the hostages to a nearby mountain village.
Brawner said authorities were investigating reports that some police officers and militiamen were among the gunmen.
Mangudadatu said he sent his wife, Genalyn, and siblings to file his certificate of candidacy for the post of governor of Maguindanao in elections in May.
‘I talked to my wife before she was killed and she told me that they were taken on the orders of the Ampatuans,’ he said. ‘They were the perpetrators.’
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s political adviser Gabriel Claudio expressed shock over the incident and vowed to bring the killers to justice.
‘We’re in shock and in total outrage,’ he said. ‘Justice will be served and the perpetrators punished, whoever they are.’
The Ampatuan family, including Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is a close ally of the president.
Feuding groups and families in the southern region of Mindanao often settle differences through violence. Clan wars erupt over land disputes and political rivalry.
Elections in the Philippines have traditionally been marred by violence, despite additional gun restrictions imposed during the campaign and polling periods.