MANILA, Philippines?The first political mass murder of the election season was described as so gruesome and unparalleled in recent years that an aide of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said it required nothing less than the declaration of a state of emergency to avoid more bloodletting.
At least 21 people, including 13 women, lay dead?some of them beheaded and others raped and mutilated, authorities said.
A search was mounted for several dozen others reportedly taken hostage and feared killed in Maguindanao province.
Among those feared dead were 13 media people, the largest group of journalists ever killed in a single incident.
Military and police investigators found a backhoe owned by the Maguindanao provincial government in the killing field planted to corn and coconut, raising the possibility that some of those slaughtered may have been hastily buried in a mass grave.
Buluan Vice Mayor Ishmael ?Toto? Mangudadatu said among those killed were his two sisters?Eden, the mayor of Mangudadato town, and Farina?along with his 36-year-old wife Genalyn Tiamzon and legal counsels Cynthia Oquendo and Connie Brizuela.
The victims were in the group that included some 20 other women supporters, accompanied by over 30 journalists, whom Vice Mayor Mangudadatu had tasked to file his certificate of candidacy for him for governor of Maguindanao in the provincial office of the Commission on Elections in Shariff Aguak town when the massacre happened on Monday.
?It was gruesome,? Mangudadatu said in a TV interview, reporting eyewitness accounts of followers who rode a military helicopter that went to the area to investigate.
?I am asking the government to allow the law to take its course,? he said. ?The law may be harsh, but it is the law.?
Mangudadatu belongs to a clan that has been engaged in a long-running feud with the Amputuans, who count among its members Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Mangudadatu is running for the post held by Gov. Andal Ampatuan, whose namesake son and Unsay town mayor is seeking to also fill in the May elections.
Unequalled in history
Presidential Adviser for Mindanao Jesus Dureza condemned the massacre.
?This is a gruesome massacre of civilians unequalled in recent history. Even women and working mediamen were not spared. I grieve for my friends in the media and all those killed while doing their job,? Dureza said in a statement.
?There must be a total stop to these senseless violence and carnage in the highest form. I strongly recommend that a state of emergency be imposed in the area and everyone be disarmed. Anything less will not work,? he said.
President Macapagal-Arroyo ordered military and police officials ?to conduct immediate and relentless pursuit of the perpetrators? and secure the area, Malacañang said in a statement Monday night.
?No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law,? Ms Arroyo said.
Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said that the dead numbered 21. But Mangudadatu?s office released a list of 36 fatalities.
?More bodies are believed to be buried so efforts to recover them are continuing,? Brawner said.
He said that the 6th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton had been deployed to pursue the kidnappers and possible survivors.
Victims unarmed civilians
?This can already be considered a massacre because the victims were unarmed, helpless civilians and mostly female,? Brawner said.
He said the armed men reportedly consisted of militiamen and supporters of the Maguindanao governor.
Officials said that the Mangudadatu group had set out from Buluan at 9 a.m. for Shariff Aguak. An hour later, at the boundary of Ampatuan and Shariff Aguak towns, 50 kilometers away, armed men stopped the convoy.
The bodies were found 2 kilometers away.
Mangudadatu said that Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the governor?s son, was in the group that stopped his convoy.
Testimony of witnesses
Mangudadatu said there were witnesses who claimed that his sister Eden, apparently sensing trouble, pulled out her knife and stabbed the younger Ampatuan.
The vice mayor said that at around 10 a.m. he received a call from his wife that at least 100 armed men were holding her convoy.
Mangudadatu said Genalyn even complained that one of the armed men, whom she identified as ?Ampatuan?s men,? slapped her.
That was the last time the vice mayor heard his wife?s voice. Late Monday afternoon, Genalyn?s body was among those found in the village of Masalay in Datu Abdullah Sangki town in Maguindanao.
?This is very painful but we trust God?s sense of justice. We leave everything to him,? Mangudadatu said.
Buluan Mayor Ebrahim Mangudadatu, the candidate?s brother, said he saw at least 20 bodies scattered in the nearby coconut and corn farming village of Masalay near the national highway.
?The cadavers were riddled with bullets. Some women were obviously raped. The vehicles used were ransacked and all valuables were taken away,? the mayor, who went to Masalay on a helicopter, said.
Ebrahim Mangudadatu said some of the victims were obviously buried. He said a backhoe, which was apparently used to dig the graves, was still in the area.
The backhoe is owned by the provincial government and has the governor?s name printed on it, the Buluan mayor said.
?I was expecting they will not harm them because they were all women. No security escorts were even sent to accompany them as I trust the police and military could protect them,? said Buluan Vice Mayor Ishmael Mangudadatu.
Opponents have no chance
Datu Andal Ampatuan has been elected governor of Maguindanao three times previously, always unopposed, although he resigned earlier this year, apparently to circumvent term limits on elected officials.
Of the 22 mayors in his province, most are sons, grandsons or other relatives.
Two of Ampatuan?s sons have been killed in violence linked to clan wars.
Ampatuan has told reporters that people did not run against him or his family members in elections because they had little chance of winning.
?It?s because of popular support,? he said. ?Because I am so loved by the constituencies of the municipalities, they ask me to have my sons as representatives.?
Ms Arroyo has called Ampatuan a valuable ally in the past. In the 2004 presidential elections, she won most of the votes in Maguindanao. In one town, her rivals did not get even a single vote.
Governor in Palace meeting
Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio confirmed that he met with ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, but stressed that this was about Sulu politics?not the political situation in Maguindanao?and was but one of a series of meetings he had with administration stalwarts in the south Monday.
?We?re still trying to get a clear picture of what happened, how it happened, and who are involved,? Claudio told the Inquirer. ?But we?re looking upon the situation with alarm, shock, and outrage.?
Claudio said the administration would not ?tolerate? the massacre especially if the killings were done by party members.
But Claudio added it was still difficult for the Palace to issue a formal statement on the matter until the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines had come up with a clearer investigation.
?This is something that we look at with urgency,? Claudio said.
In the meeting, Claudio said Ampatuan ?accompanied? his lineup of candidates in Sulu led by Rep. Munir Arbison. He said the group was challenging incumbent Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, who is also with the administration.
?They just wanted to get the President?s assurance, the party?s assurance, our assurance, that they?re going to have a fair shake, the same treatment from the party,? Claudio said. With reports from Jocelyn R. Uy, Christian V. Esguerra, Inquirer Mindanao, Reuters