Photo by NPPA
MANILA — Philippine police conceded Tuesday they made blunders in ending a bus hijacking as outrage grew over the bloody assault played out on live television that 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 ordeal in Manila’s tourist district on Monday finally ended when the police fired tear gas into the bus and a sniper shot the gunman in the head, but by that time eight of the tourists on board had been killed.
Amid a building 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 policeman armed with an M-16 assault rifle hijacked a bus carrying 25 people, mostly Hong Kong tourists.
Aquino told a pre-dawn press conference 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 of the problems he emphasised was the way the crisis played out through the media, with the gunman being allowed to speak on radio and watch events live on the bus’s television, giving him insights into police actions.
But Aquino nevertheless insisted waiting more than 10 hours before storming the bus was the right course of action, because police believed until that point they could convince the gunman to stand down.
However relatives of the victims as well as the Hong Kong government and media expressed anger over the bloody end to the stand off.
“The way it is handled — particularly the outcome — is very disappointing,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang told reporters.
The Chinese embassy in Manila on Tuesday urged the Philippines to take concrete measures to protect Chinese citizens while Hong Kong newspapers bemoaned missed opportunities to end the siege much earlier.
“A large group of police failed to get into the bus after surrounding the vehicle for nearly half an hour,” the Hong Kong Economic Journal said.
“Their appalling professional standards, and the lack of strategic planning, made observers both angry and sad. This tragedy could have been avoided.”
One of the survivors, who identified herself as Mrs Leung, said at the scene after she scrambled out of the bus that police should not have waited so long before taking action.
“There were so many people on the bus — no one came to our rescue. Why?” said Mrs Leung.
Hong Kong media said Mrs Leung’s husband had died in a hail of bullets as he tried to protect his wife. The couple’s three children aged 14, 18 and 21 were also on the bus and remained unaccounted for, according to the reports.
The Hong Kong government organised two chartered flights to take relatives of the hostages, as well as psychologists, doctors and social workers, to Manila.
Flags flew at half mast and the Hong Kong stock exchange held a minute’s silence as the shocked territory mourned the victims.
The gunman, former senior inspector Rolando Mendoza, hijacked the bus in a crazed attempt to clear his name from charges of extortion that led to him being discharged from the police force in 2008.
Mendoza, 55, had demanded that the ombudsman re-open an investigation into his case, which centred on accusations he tried to extort money from a man who was accused of drug trafficking.
Before being discharged, Mendoza was regarded as a model officer, once being named by his superiors as among the top 10 policemen in the country.
By Karl Malakunas
Agence France Presse