MANILA — A long, slow procession of coffins draped in the Philippine flag poured out of military transport planes in Manila on Thursday, as the country mourned dozens of policemen killed in a botched anti-terror operation. Marching to muted drums, uniformed commandos bore the numbered coffins of comrades brought home 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 Friday a day of mourning for the 44 men slaughtered in a cornfield Sunday when their top-secret mission �X to catch or kill one of the world’s most wanted Islamist militants �X went badly wrong. The killings have sparked growing calls for retribution. Analysts warn this threatens a peace process aimed at ending the 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 as a priest sprinkled holy water on the metal caskets, which were laid at an air base 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 Wednesday. The president was absent from Thursday’s ceremony, attending another public event. His spokeswoman Abigail Valte denied suggestions the president snubbed the dead, telling reporters he was to attend memorial services at a Manila police camp on Friday. Two of the slain officers have already been buried by their Muslim kin. ‘We cannot live this perpetual terror’
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 US$5 million bounty for his capture.