Screams as Maguindanao mass murder unearthed

Posted at 11/24/09 7:44 PM

SANIAG - Screams of anguish pierced the farming village of Saniag Tuesday as police pulled bodies from a mass grave, unearthing one of the most brutal political killings in Philippine history.

A woman identified by police as the widow of murdered local freelance journalist Napoleon Salaysay stepped up, tears welling on her eyes and gasping, to claim one of the bullet-riddled cadavers.

Dozens of other people stood among the lush green farmland in remote Saniag staring at the mounds of freshly dug dirt, as a pair of mechanical diggers clawed at the reddish clay on a hillside in search of more bodies.

The victims had been dumped in the hastily dug graves on Monday, shortly after gunmen allegedly linked to a local political chief shot dead at least 46 of them from close range with what police said were M-16 assault rifles.

They were among a small party of mostly female opposition politicians and a large group of accompanying journalists who were abducted on Monday morning as they embarked on a trip to register for next year's national elections.

Several hours after the abduction, the military found the victims' six-vehicle convoy just off the lonely unpaved road of Saniag along with 22 bodies that had been dumped close by.

A mechanical digger that authorities suspected may have been used to make the mass graves was also still there.

It had the name "Andal Ampatuan Snr" painted on it. Ampatuan is the governor of Maguindanao province who authorities say is suspected of organising the massacre.

Police said on Tuesday that some of the female victims had their lower garments unzipped and that investigations were being carried to determine if anyone had been raped before being killed.

On Tuesday, with the nation already in shock at the magnitude of the massacre, investigators found two mass graves within 20 meters (66 feet) of each other, with 17 bodies in just one of them.

"They were piled on top of each other. It looked as if they were buried hurriedly," said the regional police commander, Chief Superintendent Josefino Cataluña.

Altogether, 24 bodies were recovered on Tuesday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 46.

An AFP journalist on the scene said the corpses were found under around seven metres (23 feet) of dirt, and were already starting to smell in the tropical heat.

Local press organizations said the dead included at least 12 journalists, making Monday's shootings the world's single deadliest attack on the press in modern history.

The New York-based press monitor Committee to Protect Journalists said the standing record was held by Iraq, where 11 employees of Al-Shaabiya television were killed at the station’s Baghdad studios on October 12, 2006.