MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - Eleven soldiers were killed in an ambush by communist guerrillas on Saturday, a military spokesman said.
The soldiers were on patrol in Mindoro island, south of Manila when they ran into a fortified camp of the communist New People's Army (NPA) guerrilla group, said military spokesman Colonel Romeo Brawner.
More soldiers backed by helicopter gunships have been dispatched to track down the NPA insurgents, Brawner said.
Lt. Col. Noel Detoyato, assistant chief of staff for civil military operations of the Philippine Army's 2nd Infantry Division, said the encounter happened in barangay Panaytayan, Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro at around 5:30 am Saturday.
The military said the exchange of fire between troops from the 23rd Division Reconnaissance Company (DRC), led by 2nd Lt. Ronnie Sipsip, and NPA guerillas lasted for around 3 hours.
Eleven soldiers were killed and 7 wounded, the military said.
The NPAs allegedly also suffered casualties.
Detoyato said the government troops were in a disadvantageous position "compared to the well-placed terrorist encampment."
'Fought to the last bullet'
Detoyato said the soldiers from the 23rd DRC "fought it out literally to the last bullet."
"The operation is part of our area security in line with the incoming start of the campaign period for the local officials," he said. "The security patrols and relocation of troops is being implemented to ensure freedom of movement of the candidates when the campaign starts."
The campaign for local posts in the May 10 elections starts on March 26.
Detoyato said the security patrols were also in response to "our call for the candidates not to give in to Permit to Campaign (PTC) demands of the local NPA insurgents in Mindoro."
"The unfortunate incident this morning will all the more make us pour more efforts for a credible honest election," Detoyato said. "We are sympathizing with the families of our soldiers who offered the supreme sacrifice in order to deliver our fellow Filipinos our mandate of protecting their votes."
Permit to campaign cards
Among the dead was the lieutenant who led the patrol, Brawner said.
The battle was the fiercest fighting to involve the NPA and the military since nine rebels and one soldier were killed in a raid on a guerilla camp on the southern island of Mindanao in December.
In the latest clash, the soldiers were patrolling an area about 90 kilometres (56 miles) from Manila as part of measures to protect candidates in the upcoming May national elections, said Brawner.
The NPA has been extorting payments from candidates in exchange for "permits to campaign" cards. Those who refuse to pay are attacked and sometimes killed.
This week, suspected communist insurgents shot dead a former policeman running for local office in the May elections after he refused to pay.
Last month, the military reported that it had confiscated dozens of "permit to campaign" cards that the NPA rebels were selling to candidates.
The permits were being sold at rates that varied according to the position being contested. Candidates for congress were being charged as much as 2.2 million pesos (47,500 dollars) to campaign without being harassed.
For the past 40 years the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the NPA, have waged a campaign to seize power. The conflict peaked in the 1980s, when rebel ranks reached 26,000.
The military estimates the NPA's numbers have fallen to just above 3,000 but the guerrillas remain a potent force.
The military said in September that the communist rebellion had claimed more than 3,000 lives since 2001, including over 500 civilians killed in crossfire. -- with a report from Agence France-Presse