Monday January 7, 2013

ATIMONAN, Philippines (AP) -- Philippine army special forces and police killed 13 suspected criminals in a fierce gunbattle in a northeastern province in the latest recent violence in the country.

A police officer was wounded in Sunday's shootout, which raged for about 20 minutes in the coastal town of Atimonan in Quezon province, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Manila, the capital, according to the police and the army.

The gunmen, who were riding in two black SUVs, opened fire on more than 50 army soldiers and police when they were flagged down at a highway checkpoint, sparking the firefight, said Lt. Col. Monico Abang, who led the army platoon in the clash. More gunmen fired from a third vehicle, which turned around and fled, he said.

Two gunmen jumped out of one of the SUVs and fired from a roadside canal. The rest stayed in the two vehicles, which were raked by gunfire from troops in a sparsely-populated stretch of the highway, Abang said. The area was closed off to traffic and then reopened late Sunday, with the two bullet-riddled SUVS still partially blocking the dark highway.

Quezon provincial police chief Valeriano de Leon said 11 gunmen died at the scene of the clash. Two others died while being brought to a hospital, he said, adding that government forces recovered two assault rifles and 12 pistols used by the gunmen.

"They rolled down their windows and started firing, so we had to retaliate," Abang said by cellphone from the scene of the clash. "They were clearly outnumbered and outgunned."

A police colonel was shot in the hand and foot and taken to a hospital, de Leon said.

Abang said the army and police had set up the checkpoint after an informant told police that gunmen involved in illegal drugs, gambling and kidnapping for ransom would pass through Atimonan in mountainous Quezon, where communist guerrillas have a presence.

An initial investigation showed that the gunmen were likely members of a gun-for-hire group operating in provinces south of Manila, Abang said. One dead gunman had a police identification card and investigators were trying to confirm his identity, he said.

The shootout followed two other deadly shootings that have revived calls for tighter gun control in the Philippines, where there are more than half a million unlicensed firearms, according to police estimates.

A man who reportedly was drunk and high on drugs killed eight people before being gunned down by police on Friday in Kawit town in Cavite province, 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Manila.

A 7-year-old girl died a day after being hit in the head by a stray bullet while watching fireworks with her family on New Year's Eve outside their home in Caloocan city, near Manila, despite a high-profile government campaign against powerful firecrackers and celebratory gunfire by Filipinos to welcome 2013.

Earlier Sunday, before the shootout, presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters that President Benigno Aquino III, a known gun enthusiast, would study gun-control proposals with other officials. Among the proposals is a call by anti-gun groups to ban the carrying of firearms by civilians outside their homes.

The proliferation of firearms has long fueled crime, political violence and Muslim and communist rebellions that have raged for decades in parts of the Philippines. Previous attempts by authorities to clamp down on unregistered weapons have yielded few results in a country where several politically powerful clans and families control private armed groups in provincial strongholds outside Manila.