Hammer-wielding robbers cause chaos at Philippine mall

A band of robbers armed with guns and hammers shot it out with Philippine police inside one of the world's largest shopping malls Sunday, sending Manila shoppers scrambling for safety, police and witnesses said.

Waves of police commandos in bullet-proof vests and helmets and armed with assault rifles stormed the SM Mall of Asia, an AFP photographer saw, after the gang entered a jeweller's shop inside.

Hundreds of frightened shoppers, waiters and store clerks ran for dear life amid gunfire toward the exits of the nearly four-hectare (10-acre) complex of department stores, boutiques, restaurants and entertainment establishments by Manila Bay.

"We were in the grocery when we heard gunshots. We ran for the door immediately and my wife nearly fell with our 10-month-old boy," office worker Stacy Mercado, 32, told AFP.

"The security guards initially blocked us, apparently because they feared some of us would steal items off the shelves on our way out.

"But they were swept aside after another burst of gunfire," he added as the family of three watched the unfolding police operation in early evening behind yellow police lines outside.

The AFP photographer said he saw several people screaming or crying, including parents who told him they had been separated from their children or other family members in the ensuing chaos.

Police said no one was seriously hurt in the firefight, and the authorities arrested one of at least four armed suspects.

The rest of the gang apparently escaped, they added.

"This is a common tactic. These robbers would go into a shop and start smashing the display cases with a hammer to grab things inside," Erwin Villacorta, district police chief in southern Manila, told local television station ABS-CBN in an interview.

Several other Manila shopping malls have been attacked in similar fashion in recent years, which led the interior ministry last December to ban Manila malls from selling hammers.

Opened in 2006, the Mall of Asia has 407,000 metres (4.38 million square feet) of retail space, making it the country's second largest, as well as among the world's largest, shopping destinations.

Mall of Asia is part of the SM Supermalls retail chain controlled by the family of Henry Sy, the Philippines' richest man.