By JIM GOMEZ
MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Philippine army special forces and police killed 13 suspected criminals in a fierce gunbattle Sunday on the main northern island of Luzon in the latest violence to erupt in the country in the last week.
A police officer was wounded in the shootout, which raged for 20 minutes in the coastal town of Atimonan in Quezon province, about 140 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Manila, the capital.
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 in Atimonan, sparking the firefight, said Lt. Col. Monico Abang, who led the army platoon in the clash. Gunmen also fired from a third van but turned around and managed to escape, 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 troops with gunfire in the sparsely populated stretch of the highway, Abang said. The area was closed off to traffic after the gunbattle.
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 set up a checkpoint along the highway after police received a tip-off from an informant 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 police investigation showed that the gunmen were likely members of a gun-for-hire group operating in provinces south of Manila, Abang said, adding that one of the slain gunmen had a police identification card. Investigators were trying to confirm his identity, he said.
The shootout followed two other violent incidents 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 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 little result in a country where several politically powerful clans and families control private armed groups in provincial strongholds outside Manila.