MANILA, Philippines – Gunmen hiding in a sugarcane field ambushed a truckload of policemen and village guards who had helped secure a village dance festival, killing nine and wounding nine others Sunday in the central Philippines, officials said.
About 20 gunmen raked the victims' truck with automatic weapon fire before dawn in the foothills of Mount Kanlaon in Negros Occidental province, firing nearly 300 rounds of ammunition. One police officer was among those killed and two others were wounded, provincial police Chief Celestino Guara said.
Eight other people, mostly village guards, were killed and seven others were wounded. They had joined the police in helping protect a village festival late Saturday and were traveling back to La Castellana town's main police station when they were attacked, police said.
"Our policemen managed to return fire but there were just too many gunmen firing away," Guara said by cellphone from the scene of the attack.
Road checkpoints were immediately set up and government troops launched a manhunt for the attackers, who fled toward a forest in Negros Occidental, a poor, sugar-producing province about 470 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of Manila.
Police said the attackers may have been communist New People's Army guerrillas. "Before withdrawing, the gunmen yelled, 'Long live the New People's Army,'" Guara said.
One of the three police officers in the truck had received death threats over a land dispute, and his adversaries may have enlisted the help of the Maoist guerrillas to go after him, Guara said.
However, army brigade commander Col. Oscar Lactao said the attackers may have been members of an illegal logging group. A forest ranger was killed by suspected illegal loggers in the area last year, he said.
The killings are the latest in a flurry of gun violence that has revived calls for tighter gun controls. The country has long grappled with communist and Muslim insurgencies, crime, and armed groups controlled by politicians, warlords and powerful families.
Police estimate there are more than half a million unlicensed firearms in the country, down from more than a million a few years ago.
Sunday's attack occurred despite a national 150-day ban on the carrying of firearms outside residences imposed by election officials to prevent violence ahead of congressional and local elections on May 13.