Martial law ended in Philippine massacre province

AP News
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Posted: Dec 12, 2009 11:58 AM

The Philippine president lifted martial law late Saturday in a southern province where 57 people were massacred in the country's worst political violence, but the area will remain under a state of emergency as authorities investigate a powerful clan accused in the carnage.

The opposition said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made the move to pre-empt possible censure by the Supreme Court. The court had ordered the government to comment by Monday on at least seven petitions questioning the legal basis for last week's proclamation, which allowed police and soldiers to make arrests without warrants.

It was the first time that martial law had been declared since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed it nationwide more than 30 years ago and ruled by decree until he was toppled in 1986.

Arroyo took the step so security forces would have more power to move against the Ampatuan clan blamed for the Nov. 23 killings of members of a rival clan and 30 journalists. The clan is also accused of fomenting a rebellion to prevent authorities from arresting members of the family.

The Ampatuans have ruled Maguindanao for years and are allies of Arroyo, but the ruling party expelled them days after the killings. The Ampatuans have denied involvement in the massacre.

Elsewhere in the south, authorities sought the help of a tribal chieftain to persuade government-armed former militiamen to release 47 hostages, even as police prepared a rescue operation.

The massacre and the abduction have underscored the lawlessness in a volatile region plagued by bandits, Muslim and communist insurgents and private armies.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, a senior Cabinet member, said a state of emergency declared a day after the massacre, which allows security forces to set up road checkpoints and seize firearms from civilians, will remain in force in Maguindanao and nearby Sultan Kudarat province.

Cabinet security officials made the recommendation to lift martial law during a National Security Council meeting early Saturday, Ermita said.

"The local government is back and functioning. We can say rebellion has been addressed and the purpose for which it was called has been achieved," he said.

He said 24 people, including clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., have been charged with rebellion and 638 others have been referred to the Justice Department for investigation. Three others, including Ampatuan's son, Andal Jr., have been charged with multiple counts of murder and 247 others face similar charges.

The military has seized hundreds of assorted weapons, including mortars and machine guns, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition hidden or buried in and near properties owned by the Ampatuans.

Human rights groups and lawyers _ mindful of rights abuses during the Marcos years _ had questioned the constitutionality of Arroyo's imposition of martial law with the Supreme Court. They said that actual rebellion and invasion _ the grounds for martial law _ did not exist. Opposition legislators had accused Arroyo of preparing the grounds for imposing it nationwide.

Jejomar Binay, mayor of the financial district of Makati and an opposition vice presidential candidate in upcoming elections, said the lifting of martial law was "a face saving move" by the Arroyo government.

"They failed to convince even some of their allies in Congress that the factual and constitutional bases for the declaration were present. So rather than risk a rejection in Congress and later in the Supreme Court, (the administration) opted to cut its losses," he said.

Meanwhile, in southern Agusan del Sur province, 47 hostages remained in the hands of gunmen who abducted them Thursday. The 15 gunmen, former militiamen who police say have turned to banditry, are wanted on murder charges.

Vice Gov. Santiago Cane, a member of a crisis management committee, said he met with a well-respected leader from the same Manobo tribe as the gunmen to help convince them to free their captives. Chieftain Datu Bagtikan "seems very receptive" to the government's appeal for help, Cane said.

Provincial police operations chief Senior Superintendent Nestor Fajura said they are preparing a rescue plan while negotiations are under way.

Cane said he spoke with the gunmen's leader, Joebert Perez, early Saturday, warning them of the "possible consequences of using force."

Perez has told reporters that the murder charges against his group were fabricated and originate from a bloody feud with the rival Tubay family that has left about 10 dead since last year.

The crisis committee expects a "peaceful resolution" of the standoff after the head of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, which handles issues concerning minority tribes in the Philippines, said a law covering indigenous communities could be invoked to suspend the criminal cases and warrants against the Perez group, said committee spokesman Alfredo Plaza.

The Tubay group, also wanted on murder charges, is expected to surrender to provincial authorities to pave the way for Perez and his men to also turn themselves in and release the hostages, Plaza said.