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Outrage as Philippines probes farmer 'massacre'

Up to 40 gunmen attacked a group of about 25 people who had entered the plantation near the city of Sagay just hours earlier to sow their own crops.

FILE: A flooded rice field in the Philippines. Picture: AFP

MANILA – Philippine authorities said Monday they have launched a probe into the mass slaying of nine farmers gunned down after taking over part of a sugar plantation to grow food for themselves

The deadly attack has provoked outrage in the Philippines, as well as criticism of Manila's slow-moving programme to redistribute farmland to millions of sharecroppers - tenant farmers who give a part of each crop as rent - who remain mired in poverty.

The violence erupted Saturday on the central island of Negros, the centre of the nation's sugar industry and home to some of the country's wealthiest landowners as well as some of its poorest farm workers.

Up to 40 gunmen attacked a group of about 25 people who had entered the plantation near the city of Sagay just hours earlier to sow their own crops.

"This was... a grim reflection of the decades-old failure of the government's agrarian reform programme to extricate poor Filipino farmers from vicious and degrading cycle of poverty," Senator Leila De Lima said.

Authorities said they were investigating reports the farmers were killed by "goons" employed by either the landowner or entities that leased the land.

"We vow to mobilise all available resources to ensure that those responsible are held accountable," Philippine national police chief Oscar Albayalde told reporters.

The Philippines passed a law in 1988 to redistribute public and private agricultural lands to landless farm workers.

Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones said his ministry has handed out 4.8 million hectares to nearly three million people, but more than 800,000 hectares have yet to be broken up.

"There are areas such as these where we have not really been able to distribute (land titles), and maybe that's one reason why some of our farmer brethren resorted to farming land that is not their own," he said.

Lawsuits are either delaying or completely stopping the effort in some areas, including the Sagay plantation where the violence occurred, he added.

Farmworkers account for about 20 million people, a fifth of the Philippine population, who live on less than two dollars a day, the government says.

"Children in Negros work in haciendas (plantations) together with their families because of poverty due to government's neglect," the children's rights group Salinlahi Alliance said Sunday, denounced the killing as a "massacre".

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