- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

ACAPULCO, Mexico | Mexican soldiers fought a two-hour battle with heavily armed men holed up at a house in an Acapulco hotel zone, killing 15 of the gunmen as tourists cowered in their rooms nearby.

One soldier was killed and the wounded included three soldiers and three bystanders. Several Mexican tourists were evacuated from small hotels in a faded neighborhood once frequented by Hollywood stars.

When soldiers arrived at the house on a tip, the gunmen opened fire and hurled some 50 grenades, according to an Army colonel, who wore a ski mask to protect his identity as he led reporters on a tour of the scene Sunday. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Several gunmen tried to flee, but crashed their car into a military Hummer that was blocking the gate. At one point, more armed men with grenades arrived by car to reinforce the gunmen in the house, but they died in the shooting, the colonel said.

Soldiers found four Guerrero state police officers handcuffed inside the garage of the house, he said. The officers, who were still bound and sitting the floor when reporters arrived, said they’d been held captive by the gunmen, the colonel said.

Soldiers did not know the police were inside when the shootout began late Friday night, and the colonel said their claims would be investigated.

“We found them like this, handcuffed, and they say they were kidnapped. So if they were kidnapped, as they say, then we rescued them,” he said.

Residents cowered inside their homes and at several low-cost hotels during the battle. When the shooting subsided, several frightened people were evacuated by ambulance, including 15 Mexican tourists from a small hotel, a family of four from another hotel, a pregnant woman with her mother from their home, and an elderly man.

Two men and a woman were caught in the gunfire and wounded, paramedics said.

The gunbattle raged just blocks from a residence owned decades ago by the now-deceased “Tarzan” actor Johnny Weissmuller, and about 100 yards from Hotel Los Flamingos, owned in the 1950s by actor John Wayne. The hotel is still popular with older American tourists.

It was unclear whether the gunmen belonged to one of the drug cartels that have been fighting for turf in Guerrero state, home to Acapulco and the resort town of Zihuatanejo, the colonel said.

The Beltran Leyva cartel, in particular, has a strong presence in Acapulco. Last month, soldiers arrested a suspected cartel lieutenant as he stepped off a private plane in the northern city of Monterrey on his way back from Acapulco, where he said he met with Arturo Beltran Leyva at a baptism party held by the most-wanted cartel leader.

Soldiers confiscated ammunition, grenades and 47 guns at the large, gated house, which stood out among its more modest neighbors. Several cars were also seized from the property, including a Mercedes-Benz.

President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 45,000 soldiers across Mexico to battle drug violence. More than 10,800 people have died since the offensive began in December 2006.

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