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Backhoe dispatched weeks before attack

Flowers are offered at the wake for seven journalists in General Santos City yesterday. At least 22 journalists were among 57 people massacred in an apparent bid to stop a local politician from running for governor last Monday in Maguindanao.  ROSE TAMAYO-TESORO

MANILA, Philippines - The provincial engineer dispatched the excavating equipment used to dig the graves of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre three weeks before the gruesome murder, a police officer said.

Senior Superintendent Ericson Velasquez of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group said the backhoe was dispatched to Barangay Salman in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao from Nov. 4 to 20 for a project under the driver Hanid Delayunid.

Velasquez said the investigators got the information from provincial engineer Landap Gunaid, the officer who dispatched the heavy equipment.

“We are now verifying if indeed there was a project and why the backhoe was not taken back to the provincial capitol after the project,” he added.

Gunaid told the investigators that Delayunid did not return the machine and is now missing.

“Of course he (Delayunid) will be considered as suspect because he has direct participation on the release of the backhoe. Although we are not making conclusion that he was the one who dug the graves (and) he was just the assigned operator of the backhoe, but as of this moment we will presume that he is the operator during that time,” Velasquez said. “He has a lot to explain.”

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He also noted that the four police officers under restrictive custody have yet to issue formal statements in connection with the massacre and they are not yet considered suspects.

He added that the police officers’ formal statement will be compared with the evidence gathered at the crime scene and by other investigating units.

“If there is probable cause, then we will indict them as part of or respondents of this case… we will refer the records of our investigation to the investigating panel of prosecutors created by the Department of Justice,” Velasquez clarified.

Officers sacked

Military commanders in Maguindanao, meanwhile, have been relieved from their posts to pave the way for an investigation on the possible lapses they had committed as commanders.

“Their relief was ordered by the Army leadership to give way to an impartial investigation that would be conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines inspector general,” AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner said.

Brawner said 6th Infantry Division chief Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton and 601st Infantry Brigade chief Col. Medardo Geslani have been relieved from their respective posts and would be replaced by their deputies on an acting capacity until their successors are appointed.

Brawner said the relief of Cayton and Geslani came a few days after the massacre because they could not change commanders in the middle of a pursuit operation against the perpetrators.

The spokesman said the two commanders were also relieved over complaints that they did not provide security to the group, which included relatives and supporters of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu.

“The military justice system will apply to them. Actually, the two commanders welcome the investigation because it would give them the opportunity to air their side,” Brawner said.

But he clarified that there is a possibility that the two could be assigned back to their posts if they would be cleared in the investigation.

Earlier, Brawner said the military does not see any reason for relieving Cayton and Geslani over the incident, saying the two commanders acted immediately upon learning about the incident.

But he said the army leadership ordered their relief after several complaints surfaced against the two commanders.

He said the AFP also relieved four soldiers who were previously assigned at the Maguindanao provincial government, also for investigation.

As of yesterday, additional forces from the 4th Scout Ranger Company and the 6th Special Forces Company were sent to augment the troops deployed in the area since Thursday to help secure the area.

On Thursday, Lakas-Kampi-CMD presidential standard-bearer Gilbert Teodoro Jr. called for the immediate pull out of top ranking military officials in the region, saying the relief is necessary to ensure a transparent and impartial investigation.

He pointed out that while the PNP had promptly sacked its officers and men in the area following the mass killing, the AFP has not made any move in that direction.

Teodoro said the immediate relief of the military officials there will send a strong signal that the government is sincere in its efforts to solve the case.

Teodoro secures witnesses

In the meantime, four more new witnesses in the carnage are now in the hands of law enforcement authorities.

It was learned that the four only volunteered to come forward after they were assured of their safety and that of their respective families.

Maguindanao-based contacts said that all four were present when the mass killings took place last Monday morning.

According to the source, Teodoro played a key role in convincing the four to testify against the perpetrators and the brains behind the crime.

The source said Teodoro personally oversees the security arrangements of the witnesses and their respective families.

The source said the four have verbally confirmed the confession of a certain “Boy” that the mass killings were carried out on orders of Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.

Teodoro also urged more witnesses to come forward as he offered his legal services to those who are willing to testify and pin down the brains behind the mass slaughter.

“With more witnesses coming out in the open, the more government will be able to create a very strong case against the suspects and convict them in court for their crimes and thus, give justice to the victims’ families,” he said.

Teodoro said the arrest and detention of Ampatuan Jr. did not solve last Monday’s gruesome murders.

“There are still scores of masterminds and perpetrators hiding in the woods and secluded areas of the region. We should not let them go scot-free,” he said. -- Jaime Laude, Jerry Botial, James Mananghaya


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