Security forces in the southern Philippines have arrested 20 people in connection with Monday’s massacre on the island of Mindanao.
The arrests come after police discovered another 11 bodies buried in shallow graves, taking the death toll in what is believed to have been the Philippines’ worst politically-linked killing, to at least 57.
The first funerals of some of the victims are expected to take place on Thursday, although several others have yet to be identified.
Officials have named a local mayor, Andal Ampatuan Jr, as the lead suspect in the massacre and said they expect to take him into custody later on Thursday.
“We are expecting Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr to be turned over peacefully to the authorities anytime today,” Lieutenant-Colonel Romeo Brawner, a military spokesman, told reporters.
‘Willing to co-operate’
Al Jazeera English’s Marga Ortigas, reporting from the town of Buluan close to the massacre site in Maguindanao province, said Ampatuan had told the authorities he would submit himself to investigators to show that he is “willing to co-operate” with the government.
Ampatuan is a member of a powerful local political family, and the son of the provincial governor who himself is a close political ally of the Philippine president, Gloria Arroyo.
Andal Ampatuan Sr had been grooming his son to take over as governor in elections due next year.
Monday’s massacre occurred after about 100 suspected Ampatuan gunmen allegedly abducted a convoy of aides and relatives of a rival politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, as well as a group of accompanying journalists.
The victims were snatched as they were travelling to file election papers nominating Mangudadatu as a candidate for provincial governor in next year’s poll.
According to investigators, the victims were shot at close range, some with their hands tied behind their backs, and dumped or buried in shallow graves on a remote hillside.
Mangudadatu, the gubernatorial candidate, was not himself in the convoy because he had received death threats and said he thought the women he sent in his stead would be safe.
|The dead include at least 20 journalists who were travelling with the convoy [Reuters]|
On Tuesday, he pressed government officials to immediately arrest and prosecute those behind the killings.
Mangudadatu said four witnesses in his protection had told him the convoy was stopped by armed men loyal to Ampatuan Jr, to prevent his family from filing election papers.
“It was really planned because they had already dug a huge hole [for
the bodies],” he said, adding that there were reports from the area that the militia had been blocking the road for a few days.
Among those killed were at least 20 journalists accompanying the convoy, in what media monitoring groups have labelled as the worst ever single attack on journalists.
The massacre has put intense pressure on the Arroyo government to take decisive action against the Ampatuan clan.
She has vowed an all-out effort to bring those responsible for the killings to justice, saying that no one would be seen to be above the law.
In the wake of the massacre the president declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao and a neighbouring province, ordering hundreds of extra troops to the area.