- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Dozens of gunmen abducted and fatally shot at least 21 people in the southern Philippines on Monday — a massacre that appeared related to local politics.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bloodshed in the predominantly Muslim region wracked by political tensions between rival clans ahead of elections. It was the worst such mass killing in the area in years.

A convoy of vans carrying about 40 people was hijacked in Maguindanao province, about 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Manila, and army troops later found the bullet-riddled bodies of 13 women and eight men, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton said.

It was unclear if there were any survivors. An army and police search was under way for the other hostages, which included the wife and relatives of a politician seeking to become provincial governor and local journalists.

The identities of the gunmen were unknown but victims’ relatives blamed political rivals in national elections slated for May 2010.

Philippine elections are particularly violent in the south because of the presence of armed groups, including Muslim rebels fighting for self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, and political warlords who maintain private armies.

The decades-long Muslim insurgency has killed about 120,000 people since the 1970s. But a presidential adviser, Jesus Dureza, said Monday’s massacre was “unequaled in recent history.”

“There must be a total stop to this senseless violence,” he said, recommending a state of emergency be imposed in the area to disarm all gunmen. “Anything else will not work.”

About 100 gunmen had stopped the convoy, military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner said.

The group comprised the wife of Buluan township Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu, along with his two sisters, followers and several local journalists. They were traveling to nearby Shariff Aguak township to file Mangudadatu’s nomination papers for the position of governor of Maguindanao province, Brawner said.

Mangudadatu, who was not in the convoy, said his wife and relatives were among the dead. He accused his political rivals belonging to a prominent clan for the massacre. Representatives of that family did not comment on the allegations.

Mangudadatu said his wife, Genalyn, called him by mobile phone shortly before she and her entourage were abducted.

“She said … they were stopped by 100 uniformed armed men … then her line got cut off,” he said.

Maguindanao is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was created as part of a 1996 peace agreement with a large Muslim rebel group.

Army troops went on full alert in Maguindanao to prevent retaliatory killings, Cayton said.

Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.

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