China demands answers after 8 Hong Kong tourists killed in Philippine bus hijacking

By Hrvoje Hranjski, AP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

China anger after 8 tourists die on hijacked bus

MANILA, Philippines — China warned travelers over travel to the Philippines and demanded answers Tuesday over how eight Hong Kong tourists were killed in a hostage stand-off in Manila following a day of botched negotiations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his government was “appalled” and phoned his Philippine counterpart to voice concern. Hong Kong residents expressed outrage and media there denounced Philippine police as incompetent.

President Benigno Aquino III presented to China’s ambassador to the Philippines the preliminary investigation into Monday’s hostage saga in which a dismissed policeman armed with a M16 rifle and a pistol seized a busload of 21 Hong Kong tourists and four locals to demand his reinstatement on the force.

The ordeal ended in bloodshed on live TV with police storming the bus and killing the gunman, 55-year-old Rolando Mendoza, after he fired at the tourists, killing eight of them.

Vice President Jejomar Binay and Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo will fly to Beijing and Hong Kong to present the final report to Chinese authorities once it is completed, officials said.

Philippine police defended their actions — pointing out that officers lacking proper equipment had risked their lives in trying to bring the stand-off to an end. But they promised to review all events leading to the deaths.

“We will look at whether what we did was right,” Philippine national police spokesman Agrimero Cruz told The Associated Press.

Of the 25 people on the bus, 13 of the Hong Kong tourists and four Filipinos survived. Nine of the survivors had been freed by Mendoza hours before the gunfire began.

Seven hostages were brought to hospitals, including one in critical condition with a head wound and another whose jaw was blasted shattered. A third had a gunshot wound in the waist. The others were slightly injured, according to the Information Services Department of the Hong Kong government.

Britain’s Foreign Office said Tuesday that two of the hostages who were released were British nationals.

Aquino, facing his first major crisis since taking office on June 30, declared Wednesday a national day of mourning in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong to “share their sorrow with them,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

At the scene of the stand-off, relatives of two dead hostages attended a Buddhist ceremony Tuesday meant to comfort those who die violently.

The tearful relatives trailed monks who walked around bus, sprinkling water around the bullet-peppered vehicle. The relatives later offered fruits — apples, corn, oranges — and kneeled in front of a platform with burning incense.

At the presidential palace, Aquino met with Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao and later spoke by phone for 15 minutes with Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang, briefing him on the progress of the investigation and assuring him the Philippine government will assist the victims and their relatives, Lacierda said.

Liu, the Chinese ambassador, said various Philippine officials had apologized to him over what happened.

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry warned Chinese citizens “to be cautious when traveling to the Philippines” and pay attention to security risks and personal safety.

There was anger in Hong Kong. At the Philippine Consulate, several dozen protesters chanted: “Strongly condemn the Philippine government for being careless about human life!”

Many Hong Kong newspapers printed mastheads in black out of respect for the victims, and flags in the territory flew at half-staff.

“Filipino police incompetent,” Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily News said in a front-page headline.

The South China Morning Post called the killings “a wake-up call” for the Philippines to boost security and take gun-control measures.

“Had we been better prepared, better equipped, better trained, maybe the response would have been quicker despite the difficulty,” said Philippine Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police.

“All the inadequacies happened at the same time,” he said.

On Monday, as negotiations to end the stand-off got underway, the outcome at first looked promising with Mendoza freeing nine hostages — six tourists, a Filipino photographer and his Filipino assistant. Fifteen tourists and the Filipino driver remained.

The situation later unraveled.

Mendoza was demanding his reinstatement to his job as a policeman. According to newspaper reports, he was among five officers who had been charged with robbery, extortion and grave threats after a Manila hotel chef filed a complaint alleging they falsely accused him of using drugs to extort money. Mendoza was fired last year but claimed he was innocent.

He was demanding a signed promise from the government ombudsman that his case would be reviewed, but its delivery was delayed for hours, in part by Manila’s notorious traffic, and when it finally arrived he rejected it as insufficient, officials said.

Police made an initial attempt to board the bus after Mendoza grew agitated while talking to his brother and shot at a police sharpshooter, said Nelson Yabut, head of the assault team.

The Filipino bus driver later managed to escape and reported that Mendoza had fired at the tourists. Mendoza was then shot in the head, police lobbed tear gas into the bus and commandos stormed the vehicle by smashing windows and the back door with sledgehammers.

Police rescued eight passengers, but others were wounded. Mendoza and seven passengers were lying dead, one of them slumped on the bus steps.

“I hid under a seat (when the gunman started to fire),” Wang Zhuoyao, 15, told reporters from a hospital bed. “Then the police dispersed gas. People in the bus were struggling. I could hear that many people couldn’t breathe.”

A freed hostage who gave only her surname, Ng, told Hong Kong reporters that she saw her husband killed by Mendoza after he tried to subdue the gunman.

“He was very brave. He rushed forward from the back of the bus. He wanted to prevent the gunman from killing people. He sacrificed himself,” she said.

She said that Mendoza at first “did not want to kill us, but since the negotiation failed, he shot to kill people.”

Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said the hostage crisis would likely damage the Philippine tourism industry.

“We will have cancellations,” he told AP early Tuesday in a Manila hospital, where some of the former hostages were treated. “I’m hoping it will be forgotten soon enough.”

About 140,000 Hong Kong tourists come annually, he said.

“We will try to improve ourselves and assure the Hong Kong government and the rest of the world that we will be able to handle matters much better in the future,” he said.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano and Oliver Teves in Manila, Min Lee in Hong Kong, Scott McDonald in Beijing, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.

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