By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Friday promised justice for 44 policemen killed in a clash with Muslim rebels but, underscoring his calls for the violence not to derail peace efforts, warned against an angry response to the violence.
The government has described the clash on Sunday, which shattered a three-year ceasefire, as a "misencounter" during a bid by police to arrest two wanted militants who had taken refuge with Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters.
Aquino has urged legislators not to abandon a plan for an autonomous Muslim region in the south of the mainly Catholic state, the next step in ending the rebels' 45-year insurgency which has killed 120,000 people.
He told relatives and colleagues of the dead that an inquiry would uncover the truth and determine who was responsible.
"We will do our utmost to gain justice for all those who perished and for the loved ones they left behind," Aquino said in a eulogy for the dead at a police camp.
But he cautioned against any rash decisions.
"As President, even if I want to be angry, I cannot allow myself to be carried away by my emotions. If I were to let my anger dictate my actions, then perhaps instead of resolving the problem, I would only exacerbate it."
Aquino said this week he was committed to peace with the rebels and many more people would die if the peace process was derailed.
Hundreds of policemen demanding justice marched to the police base where Aquino spoke. Retired generals have called for the peace talks to be suspended.
The rebels have agreed to disband and give up their weapons in exchange for autonomy. They have justified their action against the police as self-defense but said they remained committed to peace.
Earl Parreno, an analyst at Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, said it was not clear how Aquino could keep his promise for justice and keep the peace.
"I really don't know how the president will exact justice without affecting the peace talks," he said. "I'm sure the rebels would resist it."
Aquino said a prayer at each of 44 flag-draped caskets, and met relatives of the dead. He presented families with a medal and promised financial help.
"All I ask right now is justice, not only for my husband, but for everyone who fought and fell," said widow Erica Pabalinas.
"Please, sir president. Please help us."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)