Army troops killed 16 suspected criminals in three shootouts in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas over the weekend, the Defense Secretariat said.

The first shootout occurred Saturday night in Panuco, a city in the eastern state of Veracruz, where soldiers taking part in "Operation Safe Veracruz" clashed with suspected criminals.

The soldiers, who were on patrol, spotted a group of armed individuals and engaged them in a gunfight, killing 10 of the suspects, the secretariat said in a statement.

The army seized 15 rifles, 10 handguns, 67 ammunition clips, 2,413 rounds of ammunition, a grenade launcher, a hand grenade, a gas grenade, four vehicles, drugs and fake army uniforms.

The bodies and the items seized in the operation were turned over to prosecutors, who will investigate the incident, the secretariat said.

The federal government launched "Operation Safe Veracruz" in October 2011 in an effort to stem the wave of drug-related violence in the region.

The Gulf state has been plagued by a turf war between rival drug cartels that has sent the murder rate skyrocketing over the past two years.

The Gulf, Los Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels, as well as breakaway members of the once-powerful La Familia Michoacana organization, are fueling the violence in the state.

Veracruz, Mexico's third-most populous state, is coveted as a key drug-trafficking corridor to the United States, officials say.

Soldiers deployed in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, meanwhile, engaged in two shootouts that left six people dead.

Army troops patrolling the Victoria-Matamoros highway were attacked Saturday night in the city of San Fernando and returned fire, killing three assailants, the secretariat said.

Soldiers seized four firearms, a vehicle, ammunition clips and ammunition.

Three other gunmen were killed in a shootout with soldiers early Sunday in Nuevo Laredo, located across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, the secretariat said.

The army seized several firearms, a vehicle, ammunition clips and ammunition.

The army is carrying out "Operation Northeast" in the states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi against the drug cartels that operate in the region.

More than 50,000 people, according to official figures, have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and declared war on the country's powerful drug cartels.

Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and Federal Police officers across the country to combat drug cartels and other criminal organizations.

The use of the armed forces to fight drug traffickers, however, has failed to stop the violence.

Mexico registered 27,199 murders in 2011, or 24 per 100,000 people, the highest number since Calderon took office, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, or INEGI, said in a report released on Aug. 20.

The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which was founded by human rights activist and poet Javier Sicilia, puts the death toll from Mexico's drug war at 70,000. EFE