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Policemen deny election massacre

Nine police officers and two members of a militia linked to the massacre of 57 people in the southern Philippines pleaded not guilty to murder yesterday in a case that has raised fears of more bloodshed in elections next month.

The massacre last November is considered the nation's worst case of electoral violence. At the weekend, the government ordered the dropping of charges in the case against two members of the Ampatuan family, a powerful political clan allied to the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, sparking accusations of political interference.

Harry Roque, a lawyer for some of the victims' families, asked the court to defer the hearings until a new administration has taken over in July, citing the decision to drop charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan.

"The decision dropping murder charges against them was so sly and done on a weekend when no one was looking," Mr Roque told reporters after the hearing. "It is so brazen and shows that justice will not be reached in this administration."

Later in the day, journalists and families of victims held a protest in Manila, remembering the dead and calling for the resignation of the acting justice secretary, Alberto Agra. The foreign correspondents' association said it was concerned by Agra's decision, and said the government should ensure the killers were brought to justice.