Martial law declared in Filipino province where 57 were murdered

Martial law declared in Filipino province where 57 were murderedShariff Aguak (Philippines), Dec 5 - Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Saturday declared martial law in a southern province where 57 people were murdered and security forces rounded up at least eight prime suspects in the gruesome crime.

Arroyo said she placed Maguindanao province, 930 kilometres south of Manila, under military rule as "heavily armed groups (in the area) have established positions to resist government troops."

She added that "public peace and order in Maguindanao has deteriorated to the extent that the local judicial system and other government mechanisms in the province are not functioning, thus endangering public safety."

Arroyo also suspended the privilege of habeas corpus, allowing authorities to arrest without warrants suspects in the massacre on Nov 23 in Ampatuan town.

Eight suspects were immediately arrested, including provincial Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan Senior and three sons -- regional Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak Mayor Anwar Ampatuan and Maguindanao Vice Governor Akmad Ampatuan.

Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, martial law commander in the province, said more warrantless arrests and searches would be conducted to ensure that all perpetrators of the crime are taken into custody.

Hundreds of soldiers took over the main building of the Maguindanao provincial government in Shariff Aguak and all municipal offices in the 22 towns of the province.

"We are here to formally take over the provincial capitol," Ferrer told a press conference at the secured provincial government building. "By this time, all municipal halls have been secured by the army and police forces."

"All equipment and facilities of these local government units will be secured by our forces," he added.

Ferrer said operations by the provincial and local government would temporarily be suspended until "a new set-up" has been organised.

Attorney Harry Roque, a constitutional law expert, questioned the martial law declaration which has to be confirmed by Congress within 48 hours.

"The declaration of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Maguindanao is without clear basis," he said. "The writ is the strongest means to secure the right of liberty. Suspend that and the people are sitting ducks to autocratic governments."

Another son of Ampatuan Senior, Mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan Junior, has been detained in Manila since last week and charged with 25 counts of murder.

The massacre victims were on their way to file the certificate of candidacy of Buluan town Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu for Maguindanao governor, pitting him against Ampatuan Junior in next year's elections.

They included Mangudadatu's wife, two sisters, two human rights lawyers and 30 local journalists who were covering the event.

According to the complaint filed in court, Ampatuan Junior and more than 100 gunmen allegedly "perpetrated the killing of the victims in a brutal and savage manner and extreme cruelty."

The complaint said the victims were "mercilessly massacred" with some bodies mutilated beyond recognition. It added that mass graves had already been dug up before the killings using a backhoe owned by the provincial government of Maguindanao. (dpa)