THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Massacre tests Philippines

Government faces challenge in lawless area

The bodies of victims were recovered yesterday after the massacre on Monday in Ampatuan. Police worked most of the day to extricate the bodies from the mass grave. The bodies of victims were recovered yesterday after the massacre on Monday in Ampatuan. Police worked most of the day to extricate the bodies from the mass grave. (Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images)
By Aaron Favila
Associated Press / November 25, 2009

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AMPATUAN, Philippines - A few miles 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, bodies were being laid out under banana leaves yesterday 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.

As many as five people remained unaccounted for.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao and a neighboring southern province, sending extra troops and police to try to impose the rule of law.

“No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law,’’ she said.

Few think she will be successful in the impoverished, lawless region that has been outside the central government’s reach for generations, and where warlords backed by private armies go by their own rules.

Authorities said the victims included at least 13 Filipino journalists from regional newspapers, television, and radio stations who were accompanying family members and supporters of a gubernatorial candidate out to file his nomination papers for May 2010 elections.

Noynoy Espina, vice chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said as many as 20 journalists may have been in the convoy, based on reports from union chapters in the area.

The figures could not be immediately reconciled, but still the deaths marked “the largest single massacre of journalists ever,’’ according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

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.

Authorities found 24 bullet-riddled bodies sprawled on the ground next to five abandoned vehicles. Police, aided by a backhoe, worked most of yesterday to extricate the bodies from the mass grave.

Relatives helped identify their loved ones before they were given the bodies for burial.

The gubernatorial candidate, Ismael Mangudadatu, was not in the convoy because he had received death threats. He accused a powerful political rival from the Amputuan clan of carrying out the killings.