AMPATUAN, MAGUINDANAO?A few kilometers off the main highway, on a remote hilltop covered with waist-high grass, bodies lay with twisted hands reaching in the air. They had been shot point-blank.
Nearby, cadavers were being laid out under banana leaves on Tuesday as police?their faces covered against the stench?unearthed a mass grave containing 22 victims from Monday?s ambush on an election caravan.
The discovery brought the death toll to 46?an unprecedented act of violence at the outset of the country?s election season. This climbed to 57 on Wednesday after two more 15-foot deep mass graves yielded 11 bodies.
Chief Supt. Josefino Cataluna, regional police chief, said two of the newly dug-up bodies were inside two vehicles. Another van was also recovered from the same grave.
He said the fatalities included more than 20 journalists who were out to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao governor of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu in the May elections. But the exact number of victims was still unclear three days after the massacre.
?We expect to gather more bodies as our personnel scour the area,? Cataluna said in a mobile phone interview with the Inquirer.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City, sending troop and police reinforcements to put order in the area.
Dozens of gunmen intercepted the caravan as it traveled on a two-lane highway that cuts across vast open tracts of land and banana groves, police said. They took some of the people to the grassy area, where the killings started.
On Tuesday, authorities found 24 bullet-riddled bodies sprawled on the ground next to five abandoned vehicles.
Police, aided by a backhoe, worked most of Tuesday to extricate the bodies from the mass grave. All had been shot multiple times and were dumped on top of one another. One was a pregnant woman.
Grieving relatives helped identify their loved ones before they were given the bodies, covered by banana leaves, for burial.
Mangudadatu was not in the convoy because he had received death threats. He said he met with the defense secretary, national police chief and military commanders to demand justice and the immediate arrest and prosecution of the killers of his wife, two sisters and other relatives.
He said four witnesses in his protection, whom he refused to identify, told him the convoy was stopped by gunmen loyal to Andal Ampatuan Jr., a town mayor and rival, to prevent Mangudadatu?s family from filing election papers.
?It was really planned because they had already dug a huge hole (for the bodies),? Mangudadatu said.
He said there were reports from the area that the militia had been blocking the road for a few days.
Police said they were investigating reports that Mayor Ampatuan and dozens of policemen and pro-government militiamen were among the gunmen who blocked the convoy.
Maguindanao?s acting governor is Sajid Ampatuan, another son of former Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. The powerful Ampatuans, who have ruled the impoverished province unopposed since 2001, are expected to run again next year. The clan could not be reached for comment.
The family helped deliver votes for the Arroyo administration in 2004 elections.
Ampatuan Jr. not yet suspect
Chief Supt. Leonardo Espina, PNP spokesperson, denied reports that Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao has been tagged as primary suspect in the murders.
?Investigators are presently documenting all the evidence against persons purportedly involved in this crime,? Espina said in a news briefing in Camp Crame, Quezon City.
?We cannot declare anybody as a suspect until we can make the allegations formal through a written statement from the complainants,? he said.
Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Versoza said that four commanders, including one provincial police chief, had been relieved of their duties and confined to camp while being investigated.
Also Wednesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines ordered the confiscation of all firearms and uniforms issued to its paramilitary units in Maguindanao after they were implicated in the massacre.
Lt. Gen. Rodrigo Maclang, AFP vice chief of staff, ordered the grounding of the units composed of 100 men used as an auxiliary force in fighting rebels and criminals but often served as a private security force of local warlords.
?We are conducting an investigation as to the involvement of our own men and we would like to assure the public that this will be carried out impartially and transparently,? Maclang said.
Julkipli Wadi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, said he doubted the national government?s resolve in trimming the powers of political dynasties like the Ampatuans because they deliver votes during elections.
?Because of the absence of viable political institutions, powerful men are taking over,? he said.
?Big political forces and personalities in the national government are sustaining the warlords, especially during election time, because they rely on big families for their votes.? With reports from AP, Marlon Ramos, TJ Burgonio, Edson Tandoc Jr. Cynthia D. Balana, Tina G. Santos and Nico Alconaba, Dennis Santos and Charlie Senase, Inquirer Mindanao