Two people, including a key prosecution witness in the trial following the November 2009 massacre of 58 people in Maguindanao province, were wounded and their driver killed in a roadside ambush by gunmen in the southern Philippines on Wednesday, officials said.
Mohamad Sangki, a primary witness in the killings of a 58 people – many of them journalists – and an escort from the state’s Witness Protection Program were attacked while on their way to an airport in Tantangan town in South Cotabato province, local police chief Col. Jemuel Siason said.
Sangki and his bodyguard, Rey Fritch Pontanoza, sustained bruises as their vehicle, slammed into two cottages on the side of the highway. Their driver, Richard Escovilla, died after being rushed to the hospital.
“The target is the witness. Our investigation continues,” Siason told a local radio station.
Pontanoza managed to shoot back and hit one of the attackers, who escaped. Pursuit operations were under way, said Nena Santos, a prosecution lawyer.
“We are saddened by the news of the ambush of Mojamad Sangki who stood as a witness in the Maguindanao massacre case,” Santos told BenarNews. “Also, we mourn the death of a very good man who was shot in the head by the assassins.”
“Whoever did this dastardly act, both the masterminds and the assassins should be brought to the bar of justice. They are evil,” Santos said as she called on the Justice Department to investigate a series of attacks against witnesses.
Santos is the prosecution lawyer who represented Esmael Mangudadatu, now a congressman. On Nov. 23, 2009, Mangudadatu’s wife was among 58 people, who were massacred by members of the Ampatuan political clan in the southern province of Maguindanao.
Thirty-two of the victims were local reporters and media workers, some of whom knew the Ampatuans. Mangudadatu had challenged the Ampatuan patriarch for the post of governor of the province.
Clan members, backed by their supporters, stopped the convoy and gunned down the rivals before using a backhoe to try to hide the remains in shallow pits.
More than 100 were charged as a result of the killings, including the clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., who died in prison before the trial concluded.
The case dragged on for a decade, until December when a regional trial court in Manila convicted dozens of the accused, mostly clan members. More than 50 others, including dozens of police officers loyal to the Ampatuans, were acquitted and ordered free.
Santos, who herself received death threats, said the lives of those who testified are in danger and attacks had been expected.
“These threats and ambushes are all related to this massacre case,” Santos said.
Political violence is nothing new in many remote parts of the Philippines, where warlords are known to maintain private armies and fight each other for dominance.
Mayor’s wife killed
Elsewhere on Wednesday, the wife of a mayor in the southern province of Lanao was killed in an ambush, police said.
Rohaifa Guro, 26, the wife of Somerado Guro, 60, the mayor of Lumbaca Unayan, was killed following the ambush, according to local media. Mayor Guro and their driver Ibrahim Gani, 58, were injured in the attack.
Local police commander Lt. Wilfredo Uba Jr. said the attackers fled after the shooting while Gani managed to drive their black pickup truck to a hospital.
Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.