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Page last updated at 14:02 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Philippines gunmen still holding dozens of hostages

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An armed group has seized dozens of hostages from a school in the southern Philippines, officials have said.

The Philippine military spokesman told the BBC all 75 hostages had been released but later reports indicated at least 55 people were still being held.

The kidnappers belong to a gang of former government-armed militia on the island of Mindanao, police say.

A BBC correspondent says there is no sign of a link to the killing of 57 people on the island last month.

The BBC's Rachel Harvey in Bangkok says the southern island of Mindanao is awash in weapons as the government has armed a number of civilian groups to help the military and police fight a number of insurgencies.

'Demands'

About 15 gunmen - described by officials as members of a criminal gang - took part in Thursday's abductions.

They raided a school in a remote village near the town of Prosperidad in Agusan del Sur province in the early morning.

Residents of nearby homes were also seized, the provincial police said.

Negotiators have secured the release of 17 students and one adult. The remaining hostages, at least 55, were adults, police said.

Police chief Marco Archinue told AFP news agency the men had earlier demanded the dropping of charges against them, including murder and robbery.

The incident took place in an area where communist rebels are known to operate, although it is not thought to be related to that four-decades long insurgency.

Nor are the abductions believed to be linked to a Muslim separatist rebellion elsewhere on Mindanao; one of the main insurgent groups is in peace talks with the government.

Mindanao is an extremely volatile part of the archipelago.

Martial law was imposed on other side of the island in Maguindanao province last weekend after a political massacre there left 57 people dead.



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