Philippine gunfight sparks massacre suspect's arrest

A gun battle between soldiers and car passengers at a military checkpoint led to the arrest of a suspect in the Philippines' worst political massacre when he was spotted among onlookers, an army spokesman said Sunday.

Although the suspect was not involved in Saturday's shootout he was recognised by soldiers at the scene as wanted in connection with the 2009 killing of 58 people, allegedly by a powerful political clan, said Colonel Dickson Hermoso.

Talimbo Masukat was one of many curious civilians who had gathered at the scene of the firefight before he was spotted and arrested, Hermoso said.

The soldiers had been searching passing cars at a checkpoint in the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao when passengers in one vehicle opened fire, sparking a firefight that left one gunman dead and a soldier wounded.

Masukat's family said he was innocent and had been arrested due to a case of mistaken identity. Hermoso said if that were the case then authorities would soon release him.

Masukat is alleged to be one of dozens of followers of the powerful Ampatuan political clan that is accused of carrying out the massacre of 58 people, including women, lawyers and journalists, in November, 2009.

The clan is accused of carrying out the slayings to prevent a rival candidate from running against an Ampatuan in elections in May 2010.

Although key Ampatuan clan members are now being tried for the crimes, dozens of other suspects remain at large, raising fears they will intimidate witnesses while attempting to protect the clan's interests.

The trial is seen as a test of whether the Philippines can abolish the "culture of impunity" surrounding powerful figures who feel they can commit crimes without fear of punishment.

Government lawyers and human rights advocates warn that the trial could take years due to delaying tactics by some of the wealthy defendants and an overburdened legal system.

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