Philippine President Gloria Arroyo vowed Wednesday justice would be served after 52 people were killed in a political massacre, but refused to say if an ally blamed for the murders would be arrested.
Journalists and troopers look as a backhoe pulls the wreckage of one of three vehicles that was dumped together with massacre victims along a hillside grave in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines on Wednesday Nov. 25, 2009. (AFP Photo)
As more bodies were pulled out of shallow graves following Monday's election-linked killings in the lawless south of the country, Arroyo insisted she was committed to tracking down those responsible.
"This is a supreme act of inhumanity that is a blight on our nation," presidential spokesman Cerge Remonde said on the ABS CBN television network.
"The president has vowed that the perpetrators will not find the way to escape justice."
Police earlier said the top suspect in the massacre was Andal Ampatuan Jnr, a member of Arroyo's ruling coalition and the son of a powerful regional politician who has helped secure votes for the president in previous elections.
"According to the initial reports, those who were abducted and murdered at Saniag were initially stopped by a group led by the mayor of Datu Unsay," national police spokesman Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina said.
Ampatuan Jnr is the mayor of Datu Unsay and his father of the same name is the governor of Maguindanao province, a lawless part of the strife-torn Mindanao island where the massacre took place.
However, two days after the massacre, authorities indicated an arrest of Ampatuan Jnr was not imminent.
Speaking on DZMM radio, Espina said investigators still needed to speak with witnesses before they could secure a court order for the arrest of the suspects.
Asked if Ampatuan Jnr would be arrested, Remonde replied: "I will not telegraph our punches".
But he said Arroyo had delivered a message to the Ampatuan clan, which has its own private army, not to obstruct the police investigation.
The massacre occurred after about 100 Ampatuan gunmen allegedly abducted a convoy of aides and relatives of a rival Maguindanao politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, plus a group of journalists.
The victims were abducted as they were travelling in a six-vehicle convoy to nominate Mangudadatu as the opposition candidate for governor in next year's elections. He was not in the convoy.
They were shot a short time later at close range, some with their hands tied behind their backs, and dumped or buried in shallow graves on a remote farming road close to a town bearing the Ampatuan name.
The death toll rose from 46 to 52 after six more bodies were pulled out of the graves on Wednesday, according to police.
The victims included at least 13 local journalists who had been intending to report on Mangudadatu's governorship nomination, making Monday's killings the deadliest single attack on the media in history.
Ampatuan Snr had been grooming his son to take over as governor of Maguindanao province, and the victims' relatives have alleged the Ampatuans organised the murders so that Mangudadatu would not run for governor.
Arroyo on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao and neighbouring Cotabato city, a stronghold of the Ampatuans, amid fears the killings could trigger a clan war.
But instead of ordering tough action against her allies, she sent a special envoy, Jesus Dureza, to the Ampatuan camp on Tuesday to get the clan to pledge its cooperation in an investigation.
The ruling coalition's candidate for next year's presidential election, ex-defence secretary Gilberto Teodoro, backed calls for the immediate arrest and prosecution of the suspects.
"This is a test case. The government should be decisive in going against this group, to arrest the perpetrators no matter who they are, whether they are political allies or not," he said.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights chairwoman, Leila De Lima, also called for immediate action by the president.
"I am appealing to President Gloria Arroyo to show political will, for her to show to the public that the investigation by the government is serious," she told AFP.