- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

GENERAL SANTOS, Philippines | The Philippine president imposed martial law Saturday on a southern province where 57 people were killed in a political massacre, while security forces detained members of a powerful clan accused of plotting the attack and fomenting a rebellion.

It was the first time martial rule has been declared in the country since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed it more than three decades ago. With memories of abuses from that time still fresh in their minds, opposition politicians and human-rights groups questioned President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s action, saying she overreacted to a police problem.

Government officials defended Mrs. Arroyo, saying she acted decisively to bring suspects in the mass slayings into custody and head off a rebellion by the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled the impoverished Maguindanao province unopposed for years.

Clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr. - a former governor who was among those detained Saturday - and at least six other family members are the main suspects in the Nov. 23 attack on a political rival’s convoy. Some 30 journalists were among the dead. The family has denied involvement.

The Ampatuans, notorious for running a large private army, were allied with Mrs. Arroyo and helped her receive crucial votes from the volatile southern region during 2004 elections. Mrs. Arroyo’s ruling party expelled the clan after the massacre.

The martial-law proclamation allows troops to make arrests without court warrants and to restore order, Mrs. Arroyo’s top Cabinet member, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, announced on national television early Saturday.

In 1972, Marcos declared nationwide martial law, leading to his one-man rule that ended with his ouster in 1986.

Under the post-Marcos constitution, Mrs. Arroyo can enforce martial law for 60 days, unless Congress revokes or extends it.

Former President Fidel Ramos, who was a supporter of Mrs. Arroyo but has recently been critical of her actions, described her move as “overkill.”

In Saturday’s announcement, Mr. Ermita cited military reports as saying heavily armed supporters of the Ampatuans had “plans to undertake hostile action” if clan members were arrested.

But CenterLaw, a group of human-rights lawyers, said there were insufficient grounds for martial law and would challenge it in the Supreme Court.

For several days, hundreds of security forces have surrounded the sprawling Ampatuan compounds in Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital.

Troops raided a warehouse owned by the patriarch on Saturday and recovered armored and military and police vehicles, M-16 assault rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, said Col. Leo Ferrer, a local army commander.

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