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Fresh graves found in gunmen's lair in Philippines

The Philippine military said Thursday that soldiers had found 15 fresh graves and a blood-soaked mosque as they overran a marshland lair of renegade Muslim rebels, but admitted many had escaped.

An abandoned 50-calibre machinegun, a mortar, fortified bunkers and land mines were also found, but only a few of of the gunmen had been accounted for after the three-day assault on southern Mindanao island.

"We found 15 freshly dug graves in the cemetery (of the area) and in a small mosque, blood was everywhere. I guess that is where they brought their dead and dying comrades," military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said.

Burgos said the government did not dig up the graves to avoid offending the "sensitivities" of the local Muslim community but he said they may contain the bodies of the group's leaders.

"It appears they escaped into the mangroves," added regional police commander Chief Superintendent Elpidio de Asis.

There were 12 gunmen earlier reported killed and as many as 40 wounded in the battle to capture the rebel camp in Zamboanga Sibugay province on Mindanao.

The assault was launched after a rash of attacks by Muslim gunmen since last week left nearly 40 soldiers, policemen and civilians dead.

The military described the gunmen as former members of the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who had turned to banditry and were wanted for a string of crimes, including murder and kidnapping.

The same band were accused of killing eight soldiers and policemen in an ambush in Zamboanga Thursday, while two days earlier 19 special forces were gunned down by regular MILF fighters on adjacent Basilan island.

On Sunday, rogue MILF rebels killed five plantation workers in Basilan and two soldiers elsewhere on the south.

President Benigno Aquino launched air raids, ground assaults and deployed a naval blockade round the gunmen's lair on Monday, but said peace talks would continue with the MILF leadership.

Amid the assault, the MILF disowned the group in Zamboanga Sibugay and said they remained committed to talks aimed at ending a decades-old rebellion that has left 150,000 dead since the 1970s.

The MILF signed a truce with Manila in 2003, but it has been marred by frequent clashes and the peace talks are currently stalled.

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AFP News

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