Gunmen attacked a police convoy transporting evidence of an election-linked massacre in the southern Philippines late Thursday, damaging a vehicle but leaving no casualties, the military said.
The military rushed troops and armoured vehicles to rescue the policemen as the military chief of staff reported news of the ambush at a joint session of the legislature, which was sat to debate the legality of martial law imposed in Maguindanao province last week.
“One of the police cars at the rear of the convoy was hit with bullets,” general Victor Ibrado told the legislature, describing the ambush on a highway on the outskirts of Ampatuan town.
“The fender and a tail light were damaged,” he added.
He said the convoy was transporting unspecified evidence on the November 23 abduction and murder of 57 people in Ampatuan.
Five members of the region’s most powerful political clan have been detained in connection with the slaughter, with Andal Ampatuan Jnr, son of the Maguindanao governor of the same name, charged with multiple murder.
The massacre victims included 30 journalists and relatives of the defendant’s rival for the post of Maguindanao governor, who alleged the killings were meant to stop him running for office.
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A military spokesman in the southern Philippines said Ampatuan supporters could have been behind Thursday’s ambush.
“There were no casualties,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ponce told AFP.
“We have dispatched four armoured vehicles to the area to reinforce the policemen,” Ponce added.
The government has defended the martial law in Maguindanao, saying it needed to dismantle a 3,000-member militia force under the control of the Ampatuan clan, which it alleges had threatened to attack if any of the clan leaders were arrested.
Opposition members of both houses of Congress have moved to overturn what they said was the “unconstitutional” imposition of military rule in Maguindanao, but conceded they were unlikely to succeed.
“The imposition of martial law in Maguindanao is wrong. It is against the constitution. The alleged rebellion exists only in their imagination,” Senator March Roxas said, but lamented that his views “were not shared by the majority”.
Arroyo’s critics voiced fears that she may expand martial law to cover the whole country in a bid to prolong her six-year term beyond next year.
They also drew parallels between Arroyo and the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who used martial law to jail his political opponents and keep himself in power for part of his 20-year rule.
A popular revolt toppled his regime in 1986, and he died in exile in Hawaii three years later.
If both the 268-member House of Representatives and the 23-seat Senate sit together, Congress can revoke or extend martial law by a simple majority vote. However Arroyo’s ruling Lakas Kami CMD coalition has a comfortable majority in the lower house.
The debate adjourned without a vote at least until Monday, when the joint session resumes.
Arroyo placed Maguindanao under military control for up to 60 days after members of the powerful Ampatuan clan allegedly threatened to attack if its leaders were arrested for the massacre.
Since martial law was imposed, more than 60 people have been rounded up, including five clan leaders who have since been charged with rebellion.
Another clan member, Andal Ampatuan Jnr, was already in jail and charged with 25 counts of murder before martial law was imposed.
The clan patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Snr, had been the province’s governor and an Arroyo ally since 2001.
Ampatuan Snr and his relatives were allowed to run private armies as part of a government strategy to contain a long-running Muslim separatist insurgency in Maguindanao and other parts of the southern Philippines.