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Philippine Police Retake Prison, At Least 21 Detainees Killed

A day-long prison stand-off in the Philippines between Muslim militant detainees and the police ended in bloodshed Tuesday morning, despite hours of negotiations. At least 21 detainees were killed when police stormed the maximum-security facility.

Intense gunfire broke out Tuesday morning as police took control of the prison in Manila where a group of detainees led by Abu Sayyaf militants have been holed up since trying to escape Monday. The assault came after hours of negotiations for their surrender broke down.

Members of the Abu Sayyaf say they are fighting to create a Muslim homeland in the south of the mostly Christian Philippines. But the group is best known for kidnapping and murdering both Filipinos and foreign tourists.

Interior Secretary Angelo Reyes says the deaths were unavoidable. "We don't shoot innocent people. They were firing at us and we fired back," he said. "It is our duty to assure the safety of our own troops."

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo commended the police for their action.

At least three senior Abu Sayyaf members were killed in the attack - Alhamzer Manatad Limbong alias "Kosovo", Ghalib Andang known as "Commander Robot" and Nadzmie Satullah or "Commander Global".

Negotiators said the detainees were demanding speedy trials and freedom to air their grievances to authorities and the media. The government initially agreed to the demands but the detainees never signed the agreement.

The detainees have been in control of the facility since Monday morning after one of them snatched a rifle from a prison guard. Two prisoners and three guards died in the ensuing gunfight. Police say the group also had managed to smuggle firearms into the prison before the attempted escape.

At the time of the attempted escape, the Camp Bagong Diwa facility in suburban Manila was holding more than four hundred prisoners, including 129 Abu Sayyaf suspects.

The poor state of Philippine prison system has embarrassed the government's anti-terror campaign. Security is often weak and the poorly paid staff is prone to accepting bribes. Some 50 prisoners, including Abu Sayyaf members, escaped from the southern island of Basilan last year. In 2003, a convicted Indonesian bomb expert walked out of his cell in Manila's police headquarters, but was later killed in a shoot out.