ATIMONAN, Philippines (AP) — At least three police personnel were among 13 suspected criminals who were gunned down in a shootout with Philippine security forces at a highway checkpoint, officials said Monday.
Gunmen riding in three black SUVs opened fire on more than 50 army and police troopers who flagged down the vehicles late Sunday in the coastal town of Atimonan in Quezon province, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Manila.
Eleven suspects died on the spot, including a police colonel who was a regional commander and two other officers, said police spokesman Erwin Obal. Authorities were checking the identities of two other victims on suspicion they were either former or current members of the intelligence service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Obal said.
Two gunmen jumped out of one of the cars and fired from a roadside canal, said Lt. Col. Monico Abang, who led an army platoon in the clash. The rest stayed in two vehicles, which troops raked with gunfire on a sparsely populated stretch of the highway.
More gunmen fired from a third vehicle, which turned around and fled, Abang said. Authorities didn't say how many suspects were believed to have escaped.
Security personnel sometimes collude with criminal syndicates to rob banks or traffic narcotics in an underworld that often includes corrupt politicians. Abang said an initial investigation showed that the gunmen were likely members of a gun-for-hire group operating in provinces south of Manila.
"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."
On the side of the security forces, a police colonel was shot in the hand and foot and taken to a hospital.
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.
The latest violence 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.