Shariff Aguak, Philippines: The Philippines on Saturday said it had imposed martial law in a southern province to quell a rebellion by a clan accused of being behind the massacre of 57 people.
President Gloria Arroyo placed Maguindanao province under military control late on Friday in an effort to contain heavily-armed militias belonging to the provincial governor and other members of his Muslim clan, authorities said.
"There's a rebellion in the area," Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said. "It was practically an overthrow of government."
Martial law was also implemented to make it easier to bring members of the Ampatuan clan into custody, presidential spokesman Cerge Remonde told reporters.
Arroyo "has taken this bold step in answer to the cry for justice of the (relatives of) victims of the now infamous Maguindanao massacre," Remonde said. It was the first time martial law had been declared in the Philippines since the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had the whole of the country under martial law from 1972 to 1981.
Within hours, special forces detained the province's governor and clan patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Snr, who had ruled Maguindanao since 2001 with the backing of a private army.
More than 4,000 government soldiers were deployed across Maguindanao, and an AFP reporter noted many military checkpoints in and around Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital and clan stronghold.
"We're looking for guns, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), everything," one soldier told.
Four other Ampatuans, each of whom had local government posts, were also taken into custody on Saturday, according to the military. Andal Ampatuan Jnr, a son of the patriarch, is already in a Manila detention centre after being charged with 25 counts of murder for the November 23 massacre that took place in a farming area near Shariff Aguak.
Police allege Ampatuan Jnr and 100 of his men shot dead the occupants of a convoy that included relatives of his rival for the post of governor in next year's elections, as well as a group of journalists.
The rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, said the killings were carried out to stop him running for office. The armed forces chief of staff, General Victor Ibrado, and other military chiefs said martial law was imposed because members of the Ampatuans' private armies had threatened to attack civilians and government installations.
"By their sheer number they are really a threat to the peace and order in the province," Ibrado said. The military said one of the triggers for martial law was the discovery on Thursday of a huge cache of weapons buried a few hundred metres (yards) from the Ampatuan family's compound in Shariff Aguak.
The cache included three anti-tank recoilless rifles, mortars, machine guns, rifles and pistols, and thousands of rounds of ammunition -- enough to arm two battalions or about 1,000 soldiers. Devanadera said local governments had stopped functioning as a result of efforts by forces loyal to the Ampatuans to foment rebellion.
But Arroyo's critics said martial law was not justified and might be unconstitutional. They warned it may be a prelude to her seizing similar control of other parts of the country or even part of a bid to remain in power after the constitution requires her to step down in June next year.
"We believe there's no basis for the implementation of martial law," said opposition Senator Benigno Aquino, the front-runner to win next year's Presidential elections.
Muslim rebels fighting for an independent homeland have been waging a rebellion on Maguindanao and other parts of Mindanao Island since the late 1970s. The conflict has claimed more than 150,000 lives, the military says.
Arroyo's government has used Muslim clans such as the Ampatuans to rule these areas, and allowed them to build up their own armies as part of a controversial containment strategy against the insurgents.
First Published: Saturday, December 05, 2009, 17:44