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Government commandos Thursday attacked a hideout of the Muslim separatists who ransacked the southern town of Ipil before fleeing into mountain hinterlands with 23 hostages.

The marauders killed more than 50 people during their rampage Tuesday, and Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan, who flew to Ipil Thursday, said the gunmen were using the hostages as "human shields" to cover their retreat.Alunan's helicopter was fired on later 10 miles west of Ipil, where the commandos cornered about 40 members of the extremist Abu Sayyaf group holed up in a government school in the village of Santo Rosario.

Col. Roberto Santiago described fighting in the mining community as fierce. Manila television station GMA reported 11 civilians were killed in Thursday's fighting, but the report could not be confirmed.

Officials raised the death toll from Tuesday's raid to 52, with 44 wounded. The Abu Sayyaf group has been linked to defendants in the World Trade Center bombing and plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and blow up American airliners.

The group has targeted Christians since it formed three years ago, but the motive for Tuesday's attack remained unclear. Police speculated it was an attempt to free a jailed relative of one of the leaders. But they also said it may have been a reprisal for the arrests last weekend in Manila of six alleged Muslim extremists.

Conchita San Diego, a provincial social welfare officer, said the gunmen were burning villages and skirmishing with soldiers as they retreated and that hundreds of families were fleeing the area.

President Fidel Ramos fired the southern regional commander and chief of the local army brigade Thursday after learning the gunmen had entered this town of about 50,000 aboard commandeered buses, passing unchallenged through military checkpoints.

Some of the estimated 200 attackers were holed up Thursday at a ranch about 70 miles south of Ipil.