197 charged with murder over Maguindanao massacre
197 people were charged with murder on Tuesday over a pre-election massacre in the Philippines' Maguindanao province. A former close ally of President Gloria Arroyo, Andal Ampatuan Senior, is among those accused of planning the killings.
The other people indicted include the men accused of carrying out the abduction and subsequent execution of the 57 victims.
They were charged after witnesses positively identified them, according to prosecution papers filed to a Manila court.
Ampatuan Snr is the head of a Muslim political family and the former governor of Maguindanao where the 23 November massacre took place.
The Ampatuan clan could be responsible for as many as 250 murders since 2001, according to government officials.
His son, Andal Amaputuan Jnr, is already on trial for murder after being accused of orchestrating the killings. He denies the charges.
Prosecutors in Ampatuan Jnr's trial allege that he and about 100 of his gunmen abducted and killed the victims to stop a rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, from running against him for the post of Maguindanao governor in May elections.
Ampatuan Snr and Jnr had been members of Arroyo's ruling coalition until being expelled over the massacre.
Correspondent Girlie Linao, Manila
"There were actually allegations that the Ampatuan family played a key role in alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential elections," says RFI's correspondent in Manila, Girlie Linao.
"The allegations say that the Ampatuan family made sure that President Arroyo won more votes than the actual number of voters in Maguindano province, which helped her get overall votes nationwide," she explains.
"Of course, since the massacre President Arroyo has tried to distance herself from the family," Linao adds.
Arroyo pledged after the killings to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Her government had supplied the Ampatuans with weapons and allowed them to run their own private armies in Maguindanao as part of a controversial strategy to contain a Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines.
The charges come on the same day that the Philippines' presidential challengers launched their campaigns.
Among those hoping to succeed Arroyo are Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, son of democracy heroine Corazon Aquino, millionaire property developer property developer Manny Villar, and deposed former president Joseph Estrada.
The ruling coalition's choice to replace Arroyo is former Defence Minister Gilberto Teodoro, currently running a distant fourth with just five per cent support in the latest surveys.
There are fears that the Ampatuan case will disrupt the upcoming elections, according to Linao, who says that militia men loyal to the Ampatuans and still on the run may attempt to derail polls in Maguindanao with violence.
"Hopefully that will not affect the nationwide elections," she told RFI, "but there are concerns that this could be used as a scenario for the government to actually stop the elections being held."
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