Philippine police said Wednesday they have arrested a government militiaman for allegedly participating in last week's gruesome massacre of 57 people _ a breakthrough that could help pin down a powerful clan suspected in the carnage.
Ballistics tests on an M16 rifle seized from Esmail Canapia showed it was used to fire several of the 126 ammunition shells found on the scene of the Nov. 23 massacre of people participating in an election convoy and journalists who accompanied them, national police Director General Jesus Verzosa said.
Army troops arrested Canapia and another militiaman, Takpan Dilon, as they fled from the scene of the massacre in remote Ampatuan township in southern Maguindanao province. They were turned over to police investigators, who detained them while their firearms were subjected to tests, Verzosa said.
Verzosa called the development "a major breakthrough" in the investigation of the killings, which have been condemned worldwide. Among the dead were 30 journalists and their staff members _ reportedly the deadliest-ever single attack on the media.
Maguindanao's entire police force, consisting of 1,092 officers and men, has been relieved and will be replaced by personnel from other regions to ensure an impartial investigation of the killings, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said.
"We are replacing those that have been there for a long time and maybe perceived to be partial to one side or the other," Puno told reporters.
A Maguindanao town mayor, Andal Ampatuan Jr., was charged Tuesday by government prosecutors with multiple counts of murder for allegedly leading about 100 camouflaged gunmen and police in stopping the victims _ then herding them at gunpoint to a grassy hill, where they were butchered with guns, machetes and a backhoe.
National police spokesman Chief Supt. Leonardo Espina said Canapia will be flown to Manila for further investigation to determine his role in the killings and his possible links to Ampatuan.
Canapia was a militiaman assigned in Ampatuan's town. Government-armed militiamen are meant to be an auxiliary force to the military and police in battling insurgents and other lawless groups but often serve as private armies of local warlords.
Ampatuan, who turned himself in last week, has denied the charges, accusing Muslim separatist guerrillas of staging the massacre. The Ampatuans denied any responsibility in the killings in a rare news conference in Shariff Aguak on Sunday.
Ampatuan is the scion of a clan allied with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that has ruled Maguindanao unopposed for years. His father _ the family's patriarch _ and six other family members also are considered suspects but have not been charged.
The massacre victims were in a convoy sent by Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao's Buluan township to file his candidacy papers to run for provincial governor next May.
Mangudadatu had sent his relatives to file the papers because he said Ampatuan had threatened to chop him to pieces if he attempted to challenge the clan's ironclad control _ and he thought his female family members would not be harmed.
In a statement to prosecutors, Mangudadatu said his wife called him on a cell phone, saying her convoy had been blocked by about 100 gunmen led by Ampatuan, who was then approaching her.
"He slapped me," Mangudadatu quoted his wife as saying before the line went dead. Her body was later found peppered with 17 gunshot wounds, according to an autopsy report. His two sisters and an aunt were also among the dead.