23 slain as Philippines cult leader nabbed

Twenty-three people died in a night of violence which erupted as Philippine police went to arrest the politically connected leader of a messianic cult accused of murdering his wife.

Ruben Ecleo (47), finally surrendered on Wednesday after hours of bloody fighting between police and his armed followers at their commune on the southern island of Dinagat, regional police chief Alberto Olario said.

Sixteen members of Ecleo’s pseudo-Christian Philippine

Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), including a co-defendant in the murder case, were killed after they tried to prevent police from arresting the two men, Chief Superintendent Olario said.

A policeman also died and two were wounded, part of a massive police force that assaulted the island on Tuesday night.

As the operation was underway on Dinagat, a PBMA member armed with a machinegun broke into the home of Ecleo’s in-laws in Mandaue district near here, killing Ecleo’s father-in-law Elpidio Bacolod,

his wife Rosalia, their son Ben and daughter Evelyn.

A neighbour was also killed while Bacolod’s other son Ricky was wounded, police said.

The gunman was himself slain after a fire-fight with government forces, while a government militiaman was wounded, police said.

Ben Bacolod was a government witness in the murder case against Ecleo, police said.

“The problem in Dinagat has now ended and they (residents) are now back to their normal life,” Olario said on Manila television.

He said the police have secured a hilltop mansion where Ecleo had holed up shortly after he was indicted for the January murder of his wife Alona in this central city of Cebu.

The suspect told local radio that he had long wanted to surrender to Senator Robert Barbers, a political ally of his family, “but my members won’t let me.”

He did not comment on the case against him and on the massacre of his in-laws.

The police official said Ecleo, former mayor of a Dinagat town, is to be flown to Manila accompanied by his mother, House of Representatives member Glenda Ecleo, and Barbers, who helped negotiate the surrender.

Ecleo is considered by followers to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

His father, also named Ruben, founded the PBMA in 1965 and assumed the title of “Divine Master” with claimed powers of healing, mental telepathy, as well as the ability to communicate through dreams and to predict natural calamities and the rise and fall of governments.

The group’s website claims 3,5 million members in 15 countries, and said the elder Ecleo had “re-appeared” four days after his death in 1987 and also had powers to revive the dead.

The remains of the younger Ecleo’s wife were found stuffed in a black garbage bag at the bottom of a cliff in the south of Cebu island on January 30.

Police said the 27-year-old woman had been

strangled.

Police allege Ecleo had killed his wife, a medical student, because she was badgering him to undergo rehabilitation for drug abuse.

Ecleo, who lived with his wife and two children in Cebu city, fled his home following the discovery of the body.

There are several thousand members of the cult on Dinagat island, many of them armed, police said.

Cult members, who carry amulets which they say ensure bullets do not harm them, helped the military fight communist guerrillas during the elder Ecleo’s stewardship of the cult.—Sapa-AFP

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