Philippine police admit blunders

2010-08-24 22:09

Manila - Philippine police conceded on Tuesday they had made blunders ending a bus hijacking amid outrage over a bloody assault that was played out on live television and left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.

Commandos fired dozens of bullets into the bus and smashed its windows with sledgehammers as they tried to storm it, but were then forced to wait outside helplessly for over an hour as the hijacker used his captives as human shields.

The stand-off in Manila's tourist district on Monday finally ended when police fired tear gas into the bus and a sniper shot the gunman in the head, but by then eight of the tourists on board had been killed.

Amid a storm of criticism from Hong Kong's government and people around the world who watched the shoot-out live on television, Manila police commander Leocadio Santiago admitted mistakes had been made.

"We saw some obvious shortcomings in terms of capability and tactics used, or the procedure employed, and we are now going to investigate this," Santiago said on local television.

He and President Benigno Aquino promised to probe all aspects of the 12-hour ordeal, which began when a disgruntled sacked police officer armed with an M-16 assault rifle hijacked a bus carrying 25 people, mostly Hong Kong tourists.

Hong Kong's Chief executive Donald Tsang expressed anger at the handling of the crisis and insisted he get answers.

"We demand that the Philippine authorities conduct a detailed and comprehensive investigation of the incident. They must provide a full account to us as soon as possible," Tsang told reporters.


On Monday he described the handling of the hostage crisis as "very disappointing" and urged all Hong Kong tour groups in the Philippines to return home.

Flags flew at half mast on Tuesday and the Hong Kong stock exchange observed a minute's silence as the shocked territory mourned the victims, while media focused on the perceived ineptitude of the Philippine police in handling the crisis.

"The Philippine government... I can't accept this. Why did they do this to us?" one survivor, identified as Amy Ng, told Hong Kong officials who visited her at the Manila hospital where she had been admitted, in comments shown on Cable News TV.

"(The gunman) did not want to kill us. He only shot us after the negotiations failed."

Ng said her husband and two daughters aged 21 and 14 were killed in the shoot-out, while her 18-year-old son was in intensive care in Manila. Her husband had died trying to shield his family, she said.

In comments echoed throughout the territory's media, the Hong Kong Economic Journal criticised the Philippine police for their inability to get into the bus after storming it.

"Their appalling professional standards and the lack of strategic planning made observers both angry and sad. This tragedy could have been avoided," the paper said.

Aquino acknowledged in a pre-dawn press conference on Tuesday that the tragedy highlighted many flaws in the ability of Philippine security forces to handle hostage situations.


"There are a lot of things (that) resulted in a tragedy. Obviously we should be improving," said Aquino, who took office less than two months ago.

One problem, he said, was the way the crisis played out through the media, with the gunman allowed to speak on radio and watch events live on the bus's television, giving him insights into police actions.

But Aquino nevertheless insisted that police were right to wait more than 10 hours before storming the bus, because they believed until that point that they could convince the gunman to surrender.

In a bid to calm growing concerns about the safety of foreigners in the Philippines, Aquino's spokesperson said police personnel would be boosted in tourism areas around the country.

Aquino also declared on Wednesday a national day of mourning to remember the eight victims.

The gunman, former senior inspector Rolando Mendoza, hijacked the bus in a crazed attempt to clear himself of charges of extortion that led to him being discharged from the police force in 2008.

Mendoza, 55, had demanded that the ombud reopen an investigation into his case, which centred on accusations he tried to extort money from a man accused of drug trafficking.

Before being discharged, he was regarded as a model officer, once being named as among the top 10 police officers in the country.