Philippines moves to recover million guns ahead of vote

Philippine police on Tuesday warned political warlords to turn in unlicensed firearms ahead of the May 2010 presidential vote to prevent bloodshed among rival candidates.

National police chief Director General Jesus Versoza said there were an estimated 1.11 million unlicensed guns in the hands of civilians, private armies and Muslim and communist insurgents.

This is on top of the estimated 1.8 million firearms in the hands of the police, military and licensed security agencies, he said.

The capital Manila and nearby provinces, as well the southern island of Mindanao account for over half the illegal weapons, Versoza said, citing official statistics.

He said civilians would have until the end of October to register their guns, while police operations would continue against known private armies and crime groups with firearms.

The total includes a "conservative estimate" of nearly 16,000 high-powered weapons in rebel hands, Versoza said.

"The presence of loose firearms in the country contributes to our problems with peace and order," Versoza told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

"Now that the elections are coming, we are (carrying out) programmes and activities to control these firearms."

The Philippines goes to the polls in May to choose a president, half of the 24-seat Senate, more than 250 congressmen and thousands of local officials from village councillors and mayors to provincials governors.

Versoza said the police had come up with a list of politicians known to control private armies and would deploy forces to traditional hot spots.

In the 2007 congressional elections, there were about 229 violent incidents reported, most of which involved the use of illegal firearms, Versoza said without giving comparative figures.

Versoza said police were looking for Vicente Valera, the long-time governor and "warlord" of Abra, a land-locked northern province where large numbers of armed gangs exist.

Valera is wanted for the December 2006 gangland-style killing of congressman Luis Bersamin, who was gunned down on the steps of a Manila church while attending a wedding.

"We will maintain a watchlist and a target list," Versoza said.

Versoza said there was a "cultural propensity to own and possess firearms" in the Philippines. Owning a gun, especially in remote areas, could be a "status symbol" and a source of power.

He said most firearms were bought from illegal gun traders and from illegal factories on the central island of Cebu.

Versoza said there was also a need to overhaul the country’s outdated firearms control law, noting that "as of now, even if you are caught with a truckload of firearms, you can still post bail."