MANILA, Philippines - In a bizarre twist, a Muslim warlord accused of carrying out the Philippines' worst political massacre said Tuesday he is endorsing the candidacy of Liberal Party presidential candidate Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. said his family was now backing Aquino less than a week after he told ABS-CBN's TV Patrol World that he was backing the candidacy of Nacionalista Party presidential bet Manny Villar.
"It was a family decision to support Noynoy Aquino," he told reporters.
He then smiled as he flashed an "L" hand signal that is used by Aquino and is widely regarded as a symbol of clean government.
Sought for comment, Aquino said he was surprised by Ampatuan's endorsement especially since he has never sought out the support of the warlord alleged to have led the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao last year.
"Siguro joke po yun. Di ko nakakausap yan, di namin hinahabol ang kanilang endorsement. Tayo nabiktima na sa [Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao] noong tumakbo tayo 2007," he told reporters in Butuan City.
Aquino noted that Ampatuan is a known supporter of President Arroyo and was a member of the ruling Lakas-Kampi Christian Muslim Democrats before he and his family were kicked out of the party after the massacre.
He also noted that the mayor had admitted last Thursday that he was supporting Villar, and even wore a baller ID of the Nacionalista bet. (Read: Andal Ampatuan Jr. is for Villar)
"Basta alam ko noong isang araw baller na suot-suot sa TV ang kulay di dilaw (All I know is that the other day, the baller ID he was wearing on TV wasn't yellow)," he said.
Asked if he is accepting Ampatuan's endorsement, Aquino replied: "No, thanks."
Andal Jr. protests innocence
Aside from the endorsement, Ampatuan Jr. also told reporters at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig that he is innocent of the crimes charged against him.
Wearing a yellow prison T-shirt but no handcuffs, Ampatuan Jr. was relaxed and smiled as he gave his most expansive comments to the media since being arrested last year for the slaughter of 57 people.
"I had no role in what happened," he said.
Ampatuan Jr gave a variety of scenarios as to who may have been behind the November 23 massacre in the southern province of Maguindanao, where his family had dominated politics for over a decade. He earlier accused members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of carrying out the murders.
The family is accused of orchestrating the killings to stop a rival politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, from running against Andal Jr. for the post of Maguindanao governor in the May 10 national elections.
The patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr, was then the governor of Maguindanao. He was grooming Ampatuan Jr to succeed him and the son is accused of leading 100 gunmen in carrying out the murders.
Among the victims were the wife and two sisters of Mangudadatu, along with 32 journalists travelling with them in a convoy to register his candidacy for the Maguindanao governorship.
Until the massacre, the Ampatuans had been close political allies of President Gloria Arroyo and used by her to contain Muslim fighters waging a decades-long insurgency in the south.
As part of this containment strategy, Arroyo had allowed the Ampatuans to maintain a private army numbering thousands of men, as well as massive amounts of weapons and ammunition.
According to conspiracy theories in the Philippine media in recent days, Arroyo is still secretly protecting the Ampatuans.
These theories were fuelled by a shock government decision over the weekend to drop murder charges against two key Ampatuans.
The party of Aquino, who is the clear favorite to succeed Arroyo, said the decision to drop the murder charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan was part of the president's plan to rig the national elections. With a report from Agence France-Presse