MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine soldiers using metal detectors, sniffer dogs and an excavator dug up more than a dozen crates of bullets on Friday in the mansion of a local mayor linked to last week’s massacre of 57 people, a spokesman said.
Hundreds of army and combat-trained police units searched houses belonging to local mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., main suspect in the country’s worst election-related violence, and his father.
They seized a shotgun, several mortar shells, military uniforms and combat boots from two more houses belonging to another Ampatuan son. Outside the walled compound, half a dozen armored vehicles mounted with machineguns stood guard.
“Our troops were armed with a search warrant,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Romeo Brawner told reporters.
Security forces disarmed the Ampatuan family and their bodyguards after entering the houses. Television showed footage of some of Ampatuan househelp pinned to the ground while being frisked. Ampatuan Jr is already in custody.
The Ampatuans have ruled for nearly a decade in Muslim-dominated southern province of Maguindanao.
Local radio reports said soldiers with metal detectors and dogs searched through Ampatuan Jr.’s house, tearing down a concrete wall where the boxes of ammunitions were found. An excavator was also brought in to dig inside the housing complex.
On November 23, gunmen attacked a convoy of the wife, sisters and relatives of a local politician planning to run for elections next year, and their escort composed of lawyers and journalists. Fifty-seven bodies were later found off the highway, some on a grassy hillside and some buried in a hastily dug pit, all bearing gunshot wounds.
More than half the victims were journalists.
Eight of the journalists were buried in a mass grave in the southern General Santos City on Friday at a funeral attended by 5,000 people. Some wore black shirts printed with “Stop Killing Journalists.”
“The government should punish those responsible for these heinous crimes,” Juliet Subang, sister of one of the murdered journalists, told reporters. The victims’ kin, most of whom were wailing during the funeral service, released white balloons after the caskets were lowered to the ground.
Two United Nations human rights experts said earlier this week authorities must prevent similar murders in the run-up to elections next May.
Ampatuan Jr and several as yet unidentified suspects face 25 counts of murder before a regional trial court in Cotabato City on the southern island of Mindanao. They were accused of conspiracy in the massacre of a rival politician’s family, journalists and other civilians.
On Thursday, soldiers unearthed a large cache of weapons, including five mortars, four machineguns, three anti-tank bazookas, assault rifles, a 50-caliber sniper gun and hundreds of boxes of bullets from a vacant lot about 500 meters from the Ampatuans’ residential complex.
Some of the boxes bore markings of “DND” — initials of the Department of National Defense — and “government arsenal.”
“We’ve started an internal inquiry to determine if these weapons and ammunition were issued by the government and if these were sold by some soldiers,” Brawner said.
The illegal sales of military weapons and corruption in the army bureaucracy are issues raised in the past by rogue soldiers who mounted three failed coup attempts against the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2003 until 2007.
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco