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Philippines mourns police commandos killed in anti-terror raid

The Philippine president has pledged justice for the 44 police commandos killed by Muslim rebels in a botched anti-terror raid earlier this month. However he maintained the peace process with the rebels should continue.

Wearing a black arm band, Philippines President Benigno Aquino on Friday addressed relatives and colleagues of the 44 elite Special Action Force police officers killed by in the January 25 anti-terror operation.

Vowing to "bring justice" for the slain commandos, Aquino also stressed that the incident, which was the worst single loss of life for the country's police or military forces in recent memory, should not derail a long-running peace process.

"As a President, even if I want to be angry, I cannot allow myself to be carried away by my emotions. If I were to let my anger dictate my actions, then perhaps instead of resolving the problem, I would only exacerbate it," he said in a eulogy delivered at a farewell ceremony, held at a police camp in Manila on a national day of mourning.

The operation on Sunday was launched to capture two suspected terrorists. Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, was believed to have been killed, though his identity still needed to be verified by DNA testing.

"Is it worth it - one international terrorist equivalent to 44 SAF troopers? I'm sure if you ask them, it is worth it," Chief Superintendant Noli Talino said in an emotional eulogy.

The other suspect, a Filipino named Abdul Basit Usman, escaped. However, Aquino promised that Usman would be captured.

Peace process

While the events are still under investigation, early reports indicate the police officers ran into trouble when they became surrounded by large units of rebels from several groups while targeting Marwan in a marshy area of Maguindanao province, and a firefight broke out.

According to Filipino officials these groups included the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and a splinter group called the Bangsamaro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

A peace agreement was reached last March between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippines government, which aimed to end 45 years of deadly conflict. Under the deal, Muslims on the large southern island of Mindanao would be given more powers in their autonomous region in return for the disarming of the rebels. The Philippines as a whole is predominantly Catholic.

Despite fears the incident may derail the peace process and calls for retaliation from some quarters, the government and rebel negotiators met in Manila on Thursday and signed rules for the disarming of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. However to keep the peace timetable on track, the country's parliament would need to pass a new law by March.

se/jr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)