MANILA, Philippines - Government-armed former militiamen wanted for murder and banditry took more than 70 people hostage yesterday from a southern Philippine village, demanding that the charges against them be dropped before they would free the captives.

Hours later, after talking with a government negotiator, the gunmen freed some of the hostages: 17 children and an elderly woman.

They continued to hold 57 people, most of them women. Negotiations were to resume this morning outside three remote hilltop huts in the southern Philippine hinterland where the gunmen holed up with their captives.

The abductions raised fresh questions about the government's long-standing policy of arming civilian volunteers to battle insurgencies.

Just the day before, 100 other militiamen in the south were accused of slaughtering civilians in the country's worst political massacre.

The 15 hostage-takers in San Martin hamlet in Agusan del Sur province are militiamen who were dismissed and turned to banditry and extortion, targeting mining and logging companies in the area, said police Chief Superintendent Jaime Milla.

For decades, the Philippines government has armed civilian volunteers - often poorly trained and ill-disciplined - as a backup security force in areas with communist or Muslim insurgencies.

Human rights groups have urged the Philippines to stop arming civilians, saying the region is already awash in weapons from conflicts.

At least 100 government militiamen are among 161 suspects in last month's massacre of 57 people in an election convoy in Maguindanao province, on the opposite western side of volatile Mindanao Island.

The country's worst political killings prompted the government to send troops to disarm all paramilitary groups and declare martial law in the province.

After the Nov. 23 killings, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created an independent commission to oversee the dismantling of clan-dominated private armies - which usually consist of government militias.

Yesterday's kidnappers took 75 hostages at random as they fled from police who were trying to serve arrest warrants on two brothers among them.

Armed with M14 and M16 rifles and homemade shotguns, they rounded up villagers, teachers and students walking to school and gathered them at the village hall before marching them up a hill two miles away, police said.

They settled inside three huts as security forces encircled them and negotiations got under way.