Over 3,000 gunmen a threat in Maguindanao: Army

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 07 2009 09:17 AM | Updated as of Dec 07 2009 05:52 PM

SHARIFF AGUAK - The military said Monday over 3,000 armed followers of the Ampatuan clan whose provincial stronghold was placed under martial law after a massacre remain a threat.

"The number would not be less than 3,000," said Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, whose forces took over the southern province of Maguindanao after it was placed under martial law on Friday night.

"These (militiamen) are in hiding with their weapons. They have said they will fight and there are many of them," Ferrer said in a radio interview.

The armed group are followers of the Ampatuan family, which has ruled the province since 2001 and whose leaders are accused of being behind the November 23 massacre of 57 people.

The government said it was forced to impose martial law after Ampatuan forces threatened to attack if the leaders were taken into custody. The martial law declaration was signed 9 p.m. December 4 but formally announced early Saturday morning.

"They managed to slip out some guns and ammunition before martial law," Ferrer said.

"(They) are in a defensive position, and the information we have received is that they are prepared to fight the government."

Thousands of government forces have taken over the province since martial law was imposed.

They have carried out raids on Ampatuan properties and recovered an enormous array of military hardware, including anti-tank weapons and armored personnel carriers.

As of Sunday, 62 people had been arrested, including the clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Snr and four other clan members.

His son, Andal Ampatuan Jr., was already in a Manila jail and charged with 25 counts of murder even before martial law was imposed.

Police said the murders were carried out to prevent a rival politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, from challenging Ampatuan Jnr for the governor's post in May's election.

Ampatuan Sr. has ruled the province as governor since 2001 and was grooming his son to take his place. Other clan members were appointed to high provincial posts in Maguindanao, an impoverished province of 700,000.

Ferrer conceded the clan was able to maintain a private army because the government had used them in the past to help contain a Muslim separatist rebellion that has left over 150,000 dead since the 1970s.

"The problem was they went beyond government control. The family controlled them and they were used for evil deeds," Ferrer said.