Philippine president vows punishment in bus hijack, Senate opens investigation

By Oliver Teves, AP
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Philippine leader vows punishment in bus hijack

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president vowed Thursday to punish authorities who bungled a bus hostage crisis that killed eight Hong Kong tourists, toughening his stance after Asian powerhouse China expressed outrage and political rivals pummelled him with criticism.

The nearly 12-hour hostage drama at a historic Manila park stunned even this violence-prone Southeast Asian nation and delivered the first major crisis to President Benigno Aquino III less than two months into his six-year term.

Also on Thursday, the Philippine Senate began an inquiry into the hostage fiasco.

“Someone failed. Someone will pay,” Aquino said during a speech before students and faculty at a suburban university. He called the carnage “ghastly” and admitted there were “many failures.”

It was his strongest statement since a pre-dawn news conference hours after the end of the crisis when he told reporters, who asked if some police officials will be fired, that “it’s unfair to prejudge them.”

“My opinion might sway the (investigating) panel and hamper their efforts of ferreting out the truth,” he said then.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry pressed Manila to “complete the investigation of the matter as soon as possible.”

Philippine officials have acknowledged the economic backlash on the Philippines after Hong Kong authorities urged its citizens not to travel to the country.

About 140,000 Hong Kong tourists visit the Philippines yearly. National carrier Philippine Airlines said in a statement that at least 558 tourists from Hong Kong and China have cancelled their bookings.

Concerns also were raised about the fate and safety of more than 100,000 Filipinos working in Hong Kong, mostly as maids, who contributed to the $17.3 billion sent home in 2009 by about 9 million overseas Filipinos — remittances that help keep the economy afloat.

At the Senate investigation, Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay said he gave the order to assault the bus carrying a Hong Kong tour guide and 20 tourists after hearing shots following a breakdown in the negotiations with the hostage-taker, former police officer Rolando Mendoza.

Mendoza, who had been dismissed and was demanding reinstatement, released several children and elderly hostages early on, but later opened fire on the remaining hostages. Eight people were killed before a police sniper took him out.

“I must admit that they bungled the situation. They could have done better,” Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, told the senators.

Opposition leader Rep. Edcel Lagman called for the resignation of Robredo and heads of the president’s communications group, saying the Aquino government “failed miserably” in handling the crisis.

He said the crisis “demanded decisive and forthright presidential action, but the president was nowhere to be found.”

In Hong Kong, business was halted in the bustling Asian financial center for a three-minute tribute Thursday morning to the slain tourists.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang and hundreds of citizens bowed their heads as both the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised and then lowered to half-mast in a downtown square. Residents elsewhere in the city also paused to pay their respects.

The daylong standoff between the bus hijacker and police — broadcast live on TV — shocked residents in Hong Kong, a safe, affluent city that rarely sees violent crimes. Hong Kongers expressed outrage at the Philippine government’s handling of the situation, with Internet users heaping verbal abuse on Aquino and Filipinos.

Magtibay has taken leave and four leaders of the assault team that eventually stormed the bus have been relieved pending an investigation. Officials have said the firearms used by 200 police commandos will be subjected to ballistic tests to see if some of the hostages were hit by police gunfire.

Magtibay told the senators that he “honestly believed” assurances by his assault team leader that they were prepared and were carrying the right equipment for the operation.

However, Sen. Miguel Zubiri pointed out the police SWAT team did not have ladders or bus window blasters, and the rope they used as a makeshift tool to pry open the vehicle’s door easily snapped.

Another police officer testified that the team did not have a “flash-bang grenade,” a standard weapon used by police commandos to stun a hostage-taker.

“It was Band-Aid solutions as we went along, but the element of surprise had already gone,” Zubiri said. “If you are a foreigner, you will no longer come to visit the Philippines because you have seen in the news that the police are not adequately trained.”

Associated Press Writer Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez in Manila and Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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