MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino pledged justice for the families of 44 police commandos killed by Muslim rebels during a botched anti-terror operation, as he led tributes on Friday - a national day of mourning.
The men were killed in confrontations with two rebel groups in the southern Philippines on Sunday while on a mission to catch or kill Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, who is accused of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia in which 202 people died.
"I feel your pain," Aquino told weeping widows, parents and children of the police commandos at an emotional memorial service inside a police camp in suburban Manila.
"I pledge to bring justice to all those who were killed," said the president, sporting the same black armband worn by police attending the ceremony.
An awkward silence, broken only by the sound of infants crying, filled the cramped gymnasium as Aquino personally offered his condolences to victims for the first time since the massacre, praying briefly before each white casket.
In his eulogy, Chief Superintendent Noli Talino repeated a Philippine government claim - not yet independently verified - that Zulkifli was killed by a small assault force that crept up to his hut before dawn.
"Is it worth it? (Is) one international terrorist equivalent to 44 Special Action Force troopers. If you will ask them - it is worth it," Talino said, his voice breaking.
Aquino was attacked by many for failing to attend a parade ceremony Thursday that saw uniformed commandos bearing the coffins of their fallen comrades as they arrived home in Manila.
The president chose to attend the opening of a Japanese car assembly plant instead.
Aquino vowed Friday that one of his government's top priorities would be to go after Philippine militant Abdul Basit Usman, who has been accused of at least nine bombings in the south of the country.
Police said earlier Usman had escaped the scene.
The 44 men lost their lives in firefights with large units of Filipino Muslim rebels who surrounded them, according to officials, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace agreement with Manila last year.
The MILF maintains that it acted in self-defence and has vowed to pursue the peace process, as it seeks regional self-rule.
It has denied military claims in the past that it was giving shelter to Zulkifli and other foreign militants and letting them train MILF members in bomb-making.
The other group officials say attacked the policemen is a MILF splinter group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
'ALL I ASK FOR IS JUSTICE'
Eyewitness accounts by at least one police survivor allege that some of the dead policemen had surrendered, only to be executed by the rebels who also desecrated some of the corpses, triggering mounting calls for retribution.
The president stressed during the ceremony that what was the worst loss of life suffered by the country's police or military forces in recent memory would not jeopardise his government from enforcing a peace agreement reached last year with the country's largest Muslim guerrilla force.
But analysts said the bloodbath cast doubts over the future of the peace accord aimed at ending the decades-long armed conflict in impoverished Muslim regions of the mainly Catholic Philippines.
Elisa Esmulla, unemployed and widowed with five young children, said she could not take a combat medal from the president's hands as she was overcome with grief.
"My head was spinning. I was confused. I still can't believe what happened to my husband," Esmulla, 33, told AFP carrying her one-year-old daughter.
To ensure the peace deal survives, Aquino needs parliament to pass by March a self-rule law for minority Muslims in several southern provinces.
However, legislators admitted this week that the incident will likely cause parliament to miss the deadline.
Police senior inspector Olarte Kayob said he regretted encouraging his late brother, police officer Jerry Kayob, to join the force.
"The president has to fulfil everything he said so that their sacrifice wouldn't be in vain," he said.