MANILA, November 10, 2010 (AFP) – A policeman testifying Wednesday at the trial of suspects in the Philippines’ worst political massacre said he saw a Muslim politician execute most of the 57 victims.

Police officer Reiner Ebus, who described himself as a bodyguard of key defendant Andal Ampatuan Jr. at the time of the killings, said he was standing near Ampatuan when Ampatuan used an assault rifle to kill the victims.

“He ordered some of the victims to form a line and then he shot them,” said Ebus, the first prosecution witness to testify that he saw the actual killings being carried out.

The Ampatuan clan allegedly orchestrated the killings to stop a rival from challenging Ampatuan Jnr for the post of governor of Maguindanao, one of the country’s poorest province and which his family had ruled for a decade.

Apart from Ampatuan Jr., five other clan members are among 196 people, including the clan patriarch and his namesake, facing charges over the November 23, 2009 murders.

The victims, who included journalists and passing motorists, were allegedly stopped at a roadblock manned by Ampatuan’s relatives and armed followers.

Ebus testified he himself drove one of the vehicles that took the victims to a grassy hilltop where many of them were later found buried in mass graves.

After Ampatuan Jr. killed the first few victims, Ebus said, those who were still alive inside the vehicles, including women, cried and begged for mercy.

“They were all shouting and then they were shot by Unsay,” the police officer said, referring to the main defendant’s nickname.

“Two men tried to escape by jumping from the windows, but they were chased. One was shot by a police officer, another by a militiaman.”

Asked how many victims he saw Ampatuan Jr. allegedly kill, Ebus said: “More or less 40.”

Most of the remainder were killed by two Ampatuan relatives and their armed followers, the witness said.

Ebus said he hid inside one of the vehicles as the killings were being carried out, powerless to stop the carnage.

“I was afraid. He (Ampatuan Jr.) is a very powerful man. He has plenty of money. He owns ammunition and guns. He is capable of murdering people,” Ebus said.

Ebus said he was also with Ampatuan Jnr and members of his security force at the roadblock where, he said, local police helped stop a convoy of vehicles carrying the victims.

Three other witnesses earlier testified that the Ampatuans planned the murders days in advance, and had tried to cover up the crime shortly after.

Of the 196 accused, only 81 have been arrested, including six Ampatuan clan leaders, with the rest still at large, court records show.

Nearly a year after the killings, just 50 of those in detention are on trial.

Twenty-eight detained suspects Wednesday joined defendants on trial appearing in court in handcuffs to hear the murder charges read against them.

The 28, mostly Maguindanao policemen, pleaded not guilty before Ebus took to the witness stand.

Harry Roque, a lawyer representing the families of some victims, voiced concern over the slow pace of the proceedings.

“At least a third of the suspects have now been (put on trial), that is the good news,” Roque told reporters outside the courtroom.

“The bad news is that we do not know when the others will be in court. In any case, the (trial) today will send a clear message to police officers not to be involved in any crimes.”

The trial is widely expected to last months, or even years, in the country’s notoriously slow justice system, with prosecutors and relatives of the victims already expressing frustration.

There are also fears about the clan’s residual influence, despite their leaders being jail.

(By Jason Gutierrez)