A politician whose wife and relatives were among 57 people massacred in the southern Philippines in an apparent bid to stop him from running for governor filed his candidacy Friday for the election.
"Only death can stop me from running," said Ismael Mangudadatu, escorted by soldiers, a police commander and a senior army general. He submitted his documents to the Elections Commission in the Maguindanao provincial capital of Sharrif Aguak.
His caravan of more than 50 vehicles took the same road where his wife, two sisters, supporters and journalists were stopped and killed Monday and their bodies dumped in mass graves.
Along a highway, groups of people waved at the cars and raised their thumbs and clenched their fists in approval. But inside Shariff Aguak, the stronghold of the rival Ampatuan clan, the mood was different. There were no enthusiastic crowds with only a few pedestrians.
Clan has ruled province for years
The main suspect in the slayings, Andal Ampatuan Jr., a scion of the clan that has ruled Maguindanao unopposed for years, turned himself in Thursday under threat of military attack against his family's compound. He is expected to be charged in the slayings later Friday. He maintained his innocent.
"This symbolizes our freedom. I hope this will be the start of our liberation," said Mangudadatu, wearing a red striped T-shirt and denim jeans. He proudly held up his certificate of candidacy in front of reporters and followers.
About 100 supporters applauded and cheered him outside the elections office, shouting "Allahu Akbar!" or God is great.
Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan township, did the unthinkable when he decided to run in May 2010 elections. Having received death threats, he sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives Monday to submit his papers, hoping that women would be spared the kind of violence that regularly reigns in the region.
Asked by reporters if he was involved in the killings, Ampatuan said, "There is no truth to that. The reason I came out is to prove that I am not hiding and that I am not guilty."
Suspect blames Muslims instead
Later, after he was brought to Manila, he said a commander of a large Muslim separatist group was behind the massacre. Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in peace talks with the government, said the guerrillas had nothing to do with the killings.
Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera also said there is no evidence of rebel involvement.
Ampatuan gave himself up to presidential adviser Jesus Dureza in Shariff Aguak, following days of negotiations and hours after troops and police sent in tanks, trucks and armored carriers around administrative buildings. Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno had threatened to attack the family compound unless they turned over Ampatuan by midday Thursday.
At an airport building where he was initially questioned, Ampatuan was confronted by an enraged Mangudadatu. Relatives and officials had to step in to restrain them.
"When I saw him, I wanted to chew him up, spit him out and stomp on him," Mangudadatu told reporters later.
Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno said he expects Ampatuan, who was brought to Manila, to be charged with multiple counts of murder later Friday in southern Cotabato city, which is closest to the massacre site. The trial will take place in Manila for security reasons.
The Ampatuan clan helped President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her allies win the 2004 presidential and 2007 senatorial elections by delivering crucial votes.
After the massacre, Arroyo's ruling party expelled Ampatuan, his father and a brother.
Apart from Ampatuan, national police director Jesus Verzosa said six senior officers, including the provincial police chief and his deputy, 20 members of Ampatuan township's police station and nearly 400 militiamen were in custody, but not all were considered suspects.
The area around the provincial capital was tense and a highway dotted with military checkpoints was deserted after troops disarmed nearly 400 pro-government militiamen loyal to the Ampatuans. Such militias are meant to act as an auxiliary force to the military and police in fighting rebels and criminals but often serve as politicians' private armies.
Those police officers "forgot that they should defend the Republic of the Philippines, not their Godfather," Puno said.
Puno said there were witnesses to the massacre but refused to provide details. Mangudadatu said earlier four witnesses under his protection told him they saw Ampatuan flagging down the caravan. The four were able to turn back unnoticed, Mangudadatu told The Associated Press.
Mangudadatu said one witness "saw the gunmen stop the convoy and saw Andal Ampatuan slap my wife."
Not all the 57 victims were part of the convoy. Police officer Felicisimo Khu, who was supervising the retrieval of bodies on a grassy hilltop in Ampatuan township, said the gunmen intercepted two other vehicles with six people who happened to be traveling at the same time — and killed and buried them too.
Arroyo vowed justice for the victims.
But with only seven months left in office before she steps down after nine years, few think she will be able to restore the rule of law in the chronically restive region that has been outside the central government's reach for generations. Maguindanao's acting governor is Sajid Ampatuan, another son of former Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan's patriarch.
At least 22 journalists working for newspapers and TV and radio stations in the southern Mindanao Island region were among the dead — the most reporters killed in a single attack anywhere in the world, according to media groups.
The most senior reporter in the group was Alejandro "Bong" Reblando, 53, a former Associated Press stringer.