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.
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.
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.
He vowed Friday that one of his government's top priorities would be to go after Philippine militant Abdul Basit Usman, a suspect in at least nine bombings in the south, who escaped from the weekend fighting.
And 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.
The 44 men lost their lives in gun battles 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.
The rebels were not harbouring Zulkifli or Usman, MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told AFP, despite military claims in the past they had been offered shelter.
"We don't know anything about their movements... They don't have contact with the MILF at all," Iqbal said, adding 11 MILF fighters died as a result of the encounter while 15 were wounded, with some in a "serious condition".
Iqbal said there was "no other way to move forward" except to implement the peace treaty.
The other group that attacked the policemen, officials said, 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.
On Friday, the Philippine government and Muslim rebel negotiators announced that they had signed a protocol for the disarmament of guerillas.
The two sides started three-day talks in Kuala Lumpur from Thursday, their first formal sit-down since the botched raid.
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 stop 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.
To keep the peace timetable on track, 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.