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Philippine prosecutors file murder charges for massacre

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine prosecutors filed murder charges against the patriarch of a powerful political clan with close ties to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and 196 others for the massacre of 57 people in the country’s worst election-related violence.

Andal Ampatuan Sr, whose family ruled the poor and troubled southern Maguindanao province for nearly a decade, will face 57 counts of murder before a local court in Manila.

Twenty-five other members of his family, 65 soldiers and police officers, and 106 members of a civilian militia force were also charged for the murders at a hilly area in Maguindanao on November 23.

Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera told reporters the murder charges were filed after prosecutors amended similar earlier charges against the clan leader’s son, Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr, the key suspect in the massacre.

Thirty local journalists, along with seven members of the Ampatuan’s rival clan and 20 civilians, were attacked by about 100 armed men while on their way to witness the filing of nomination papers of a rival of the Ampatuans.

The deaths heightened the Philippines’ profile as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The massacre has also stoked tensions ahead of elections in May.

Copies of the indictment papers showed witnesses had identified some members of the Ampatuan family as among those who shot at close range most of the massacre victims. Other family members were alleged to have helped plan the massacre.

Ampatuan Sr is under heavy guard at an army hospital in Davao City on the southern Mindanao island while his brother and his three sons are detained at a police base in another southern city.

The justice department has requested the court to transfer all of them to Manila before they are arraigned, Devanadera added.

Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Sugita Katyal