A two-day police siege on an island mansion that left 17 people dead including one policeman ended yesterday morning when a southern Philippines-based Chr-istian cult leader surrendered.

Ruben Ecleo, chief of the Philippines Benevolent Missio-nary Association (PBMA), was facing charges of murdering his wife.

He surrendered to the authorities around 9am yesterday, after his followers tried to prevent their leader's arrest by engaging policemen in a fire fight. The fight lasted several hours. His followers raised a white towel signalling they were giving up.

Regional Police Chief Alberto Olario told media that police were sent to seize Ecleo in his hilltop mansion in Dinagat town, Surigao del Sur province, where he had been holed up since January.

The gunbattle in Dinagat, which began on Tuesday evening, left 16 dead and 22 wounded on the side of the cultists and one dead among the police.

Several hours after his surrender, the 47-year-old Ecleo, also a former mayor of Dinagat, emerged from a commercial flight from Surigao in handcuffs, under heavy guard.

His mother Glenda Ecleo, a member of the House of Representatives, also accompanied him in the flight to Manila.

Police chief Olario told media: "He could have avoided this bloodshed if he had surrendered right away when policemen arrived."

Barbers claimed to have convinced Ecleo to surrender. Earlier, the suspect avoided several attempts by the police to arrest him in central Philippines‚ Mandaue City where he is facing murder charges of his 27-year-old wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo.

Alona's body was found dumped in a garbage heap inside a plastic bag in January and police believe that Ecleo, a known drug user, was behind the gruesome killing.

Moments after police arrived inside the sprawling compound of Ecleo's Dinagat mansion, a PBMA member had attacked the home of Ecleo's in-laws in Mandaue City some 100 km from Dinagat, with an assault rifle, killing his slain wife's father Elpidio Bacolod, mother Rosalia, brother Ben and sister Evelyn.

Alona's other brother, Ricky, was wounded while a neighbour was also killed. The still-unidentified gunman was also killed by policemen, reports said. Ben Bacolod, a government witness in the murder case against Ecleo, was killed just minutes after he gave a radio interview about a clash in Dinagat, police said.

Olario in a radio interview said: "The problem is solved. We will turn the suspect over to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. It is already an accomplished mission."

Accounts given by police said Ecleo's followers, who were defending him did not appear to be afraid of getting hit by gunfire, as they shot at the arresting policemen in the open without any cover.

Olario said: "When we arrived on the island, we gave Ecleo 10 minutes to give himself up. Then the cultist opened fire." He said Ecleo even mocked policemen by dancing nude in the mansion's balcony.

"He was firing at us alongside his men before that." Despite his eccentricities, Ecleo commands a strong following in Dinagat. The police chief said: "The situation in Dinagat is still tense despite the surrender."

Once used by the government in its counter-insurgency campaign against the communists and Moro separatists in the northern regions of the southern main-island of Mindanao, the PBMA has evolved into a private army of the influential Ecleo clan.

The group boasts of having as many as one million members across the country. Like any other cult group used by the previous governments in the war against communists, the PBMA mixes Christian teachings with animist superstition such as belief in amulets that could render their bodies impregnable by bullets and knives. Every cult member wears a ring on their finger that they believe gives them the power to heal.

Ecleo, who once dreamt of becoming a rock singer, was propelled into leadership of the PBMA in 1989, when his father, Ruben Sr. died. He founded the PBMA in 1965 as a faith healer before leading his followers in the campaign against the communists and the Moro separatists.