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Key question answered by Philippine panel: exactly where was Aquino shot?

Fourteen months after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., two reports have concluded what many Filipinos believed all along: that the killing was a military conspiracy, not a communist plot.

The conclusion rested on evidence indicating Aquino could only have been shot on the steps leading from the arrival plane and thus by his military escorts.

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The government had claimed he was shot on the airport tarmac by Rolando Galman, a gangster it said was hired by communists. This version says Galman hid beneath the stairs of the China Airlines plane. When Aquino and his military escorts reached the tarmac, Galman dashed from under the stairs, leaned over the guards, and shot Aquino. Galman then ran toward the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) van near the plane and was shot and killed by nearby guards.

The government said all of the escorts were unarmed. The Justice Ministry autopsy showed that the bullet entered behind the left ear and was directed ''forward, downward, and medially,'' exiting at the chin.

The government account met with widespread skepticism because of several inconsistencies:

Where Aquino was shot. The civilian Fact-Finding Board headed by retired Justice Corazon Agrava found in its two separate reports that Aquino was still on the stairs - making it impossible for the 5-foot-7-inch Galman to shoot Aquino, who was 5 feet, 9 inches tall. The autopsy team indicated the bullet was fired by someone taller than Aquino, or by someone in a higher place.

Where Galman was standing. The Agrava report did not describe where Galman was standing before the shooting. But it would have been hard for him to hide under the open steel steps, which were easy to see through.

Ground technician Ramon Balang testified that he saw Galman standing with a group of soldiers several feet in front of Aquino when he was shot.

Reuben Regalado, an aircraft technician, told NBC News that Galman was in front of Aquino and that by the time Aquino had fallen on the tarmac, Galman was standing near the Avsecom van. Galman's wrists, Regalado claimed, were being held by someone. Shortly afterward, he said, one of Aquino's escorts shot Galman.

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In an interview with the Monitor, two military officers said that six civilian witnesses to the killing said that Galman was pushed, seemingly lifeless, from the Avsecom van.

The murder weapon. The government originally said the gun that shot Aquino was a Smith and Wesson Magnum .357. This heavy-duty fighting pistol - which weighs2.4 pounds and is nearly a foot long - would have been hard for Galman to conceal, especially since his tapered work shirt reached just down to his waist.

The final panel report has come up with another twist: It now claims that the gun was actually a .38 or .45. The report says the military was deliberately misleading the commission over the type of gun.

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