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Philippines mourns police killed in anti-terror bloodbath

Manila: A long, slow procession of coffins draped in the Philippine flag poured out of military transport planes in Manila today, as the country mourned dozens of policemen killed in a botched anti-terror operation.

Borne by uniformed colleagues marching to muted drums, the numbered coffins had been flown to an air base in the capital from the southern island of Mindanao, the scene of the worst loss of life by the country’s police or troops in recent memory.

President Benigno Aquino has declared tomorrow a day of mourning for the 44 police commandos who were slaughtered in a cornfield Sunday when their top-secret mission — to kill or capture one of the world’s most wanted Islamic militants — went badly wrong.

The killings have sparked growing calls for retribution. Analysts warn this threatens the peace process aimed at ending a decades-long armed conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in impoverished Muslim regions of the mainly Catholic Philippines.

Relatives wept and hugged each other at the air base as a priest sprinkled holy water on the caskets, which were laid in front of a large national flag at half-mast. Cabinet ministers and lawmakers watched from the stands.

“As president and as father of this country, I am greatly saddened that our policemen had to lay down their lives for this mission. Without question, these people are heroes,” Aquino told the nation on television late yesterday.

Two of the slain officers have already been buried by their Muslim kin. Almost 400 police commandos had swooped before dawn in the operation to hunt down Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, a top suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings and one of the United States’ most wanted militants, with a USD 5 million bounty for his capture.

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