MANILA, Nov 23, 2009 (AFP) - Twenty-one people who were among a group of local politicians and journalists abducted in the southern Philippines on Monday have been found dead, the region's military chief said.
"Our army troopers have reached the area where the vehicles and those held were taken... they were shot by the armed men," Major General Alfredo Cayton said in a radio interview.
"We have recovered 21 bodies. Our men are continuing to scour the area to find the others."
Cayton said he could not yet confirm who carried out the killings.
But armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said earlier that gunmen linked to a powerful politician had seized 40 people, including his political rivals and 20 local journalists.
Among those taken were the wife of a mayor in Maguindanao province, Esmael Mangundadatu, his aides and supporters, according to Brawner.
"We have alerted our troops to conduct pursuit operations. This is a law enforcement operation," he told AFP before Cayton reported the 21 deaths.
The journalists were accompanying Mangundadatu's group to a local elections office to file his candidacy for governorship of the predominantly Muslim Maguindanao province in the May 2010 vote when they were seized by the gunmen.
The Mangundadatu clan is known to have a long-running feud with the family of Maguindanao's incumbent governor Andal Ampatuan, who police say is known to control his own private army.
Brawner said there were about 100 gunmen, most of whom were militiamen deputised as government guards by Ampatuan's family.
Brawner said the leader of the militiamen who staged the kidnapping was one of Ampatuan's sons. Ampatuan was not immediately reachable for comment.
Revenge killings and clashes among rival political families are common in Maguindanao and other parts of Mindanao island, where unlicensed firearms proliferate and parts of which are lawless.
Islamic militants on Mindanao have also been waging a separatist rebellion for decades.