Philippines massacre suspect pleads not guilty

A member of a powerful political clan in the Philippines accused of leading the massacre of 57 journalists and members of a rival's family pleaded not guilty on the first day of his trial.

Andal Ampatuan, a town mayor in southern Maguindanao province, has been initially charged with 41 counts of murder over the November 23 attack on an election caravan, the worst political violence in the country.

He entered a plea of not guilty last night as his trial got under way under tight security in the national police headquarters.

Prosecutors say they have witnesses who will say Ampatuan led more than 100 government-armed militiamen and police in stopping the caravan at a security checkpoint outside Ampatuan township then forcing the victims at gunpoint to a hilltop clearing where they were gunned down, hacked and buried in mass graves.

Among those killed were at least 30 journalists and their staff in what is considered the world's deadliest single attack on media workers.

The carnage has sparked international outrage, prompting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to briefly impose martial law in Maguindanao to crack down on the powerful Ampatuan clan, a key political ally, and its private army.

Ampatuan's father, the former provincial governor who heads the clan, and several other close relatives have also been accused of involvement in the killings, but have yet to be indicted. They have denied any role in the massacre.

The victims included the family and supporters of the Ampatuans' election rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, who sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives to file his candidacy papers hoping they would not be harmed.

Mr Mangudadatu said Ampatuan had threatened to kill him if he ran for governor in national elections in May.

President Arroyo's political backing of the warlord clan, which helped her win crucial votes during the 2004 elections, has allowed the Ampatuans to flourish dangerously for years in Maguindanao, a predominantly Muslim province about 560 miles south of Manila, the International Crisis Group, a prominent think-tank, said last month.

Her aides have acknowledged her close alliance with the Ampatuans but said that did not authorise them to commit the crime. The Ampatuans were expelled from Ms Arroyo's ruling party after the killings.

The hearing was adjourned until January 13, when Ampatuan's lawyer Sigfrid Fortun said he would ask for his client to be released on bail.

Although murder is a non-bailable offence, Mr Fortun said the evidence against Ampatuan was fabricated by his political rivals.

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