MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino, mortified by the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists in a hostage drama that shocked the world, apologized yesterday to families of the victims and to the Chinese government, and vowed to get to the bottom of the bloodbath that was widely blamed on sloppy police operations.
“The Secretary of Foreign Affairs has conveyed our deep feelings of sorrow to the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China and the people of Hong Kong through Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang,” Mr. Aquino said.
He talked with Tsang over the phone for 10 to 15 minutes yesterday to explain what happened. The details of the conversation were not revealed. The President also had a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao in Malacañang.
The President moved to repair the country’s image as he ordered his officials to meet with the rest of the diplomatic corps to dissuade them from issuing negative travel advisories.
The President faced the nation past midnight yesterday to offer his condolences to the families of the victims.
Hostage taker dismissed Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza and eight of his hostages were killed at the end of a day-long siege in front of the Quirino Grandstand at the Rizal Park. Mendoza was demanding his reinstatement in the police force after being dismissed for involvement in extortion.
Asked if there was a need to apologize to the Hong Kong government, the President said he had done it by expressing sorrow and regret over what happened.
“If we really have to ask for an apology from them because we were not able to take care of their people, I have done it,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President said it took some time for him to come out and deliver a message to the public because he had been meeting with authorities on the crisis.
He said it had been difficult to stop meddlers like the National Police Commission official whose encroaching in the hostage drama only prompted Mendoza to abandon negotiations.
“So I have to task (Interior Secretary) Jesse Robredo to call up this particular Napolcom official to tell him to keep quiet because he was, for whatever reason, greatly complicating the already tense situation,” Mr. Aquino said.
“Now, the ground commander has to be given confidence. He is the person who is there on the site, who will have to make these tough decisions if necessary and it does not help him to have somebody looking over his shoulder and micromanaging everything that he has to do,” he said.
“So, consciously, from the morning since we were informed of this incident, we were asking to be kept apprised of the developments but, consciously, it had to lay the delegated authority to the rightful persons who are tasked to carry out the functions and secure the situation,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said he had also tasked Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman and Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim to provide everything necessary for the recovery of the survivors and their prompt return home.
“I have directed the fullest cooperation with the Hong Kong authorities on the part of our officials,” Mr. Aquino said.
Cantonese interpreters as well as social workers have been assigned to survivors while the Department of the Interior and Local Government has offered security assistance to the families of the victims from the funeral parlor to the airport.
“We’d like to reiterate that the Philippine government will be shouldering the cost,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said, although compensation for the victims and their families had yet to be discussed.
Lacierda said various activities like wreath laying and prayer vigils would be held all over the country in honor of the victims.
Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said they were worried about reports of massive outrage in Hong Kong over the incident.
“We have not received verified reports of physical threats. There was only an incidental report that we are trying to confirm – that a Filipina maid was fired by her employers in Hong Kong because of what happened,” Carandang said.
“There were those kinds of incidents that were anecdotal. That is one of the concerns that we hope to address when we send a delegation to Hong Kong,” he said.
“We understand the anger and the dismay of the people of Hong Kong but at the same time we don’t think its right that our ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with this should be paying the price for that,” Carandang said.
“Again part of the reason why we’re sending a delegation there is to address many of these concerns, what we don’t want is this anger to spill over and affect innocent Filipinos living and working in Hong Kong,” he said.
Chinese media see the authorities’ missteps in the hostage drama as signs of deeper deficiencies in a country beset by security problems.
In China, the widely read tabloid the Global Times, run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said the botched rescue reflected a deeper malaise in the country.
“The Philippines is one of the most chaotic countries in Southeast Asia,” the newspaper said.
“A culture of colonization, autocracy and rapid changes in government have created all sorts of curious grievances in this country,” it added.
Mr. Aquino admitted there were deficiencies in the operation, but said the gunman’s access to TV and radio made it hard for police to launch a rescue mission on a bus that was parked some distance from cover.
The day-long siege had a lengthy climax, with police launching an initial assault on the bus in heavy rain before moving in a second time and killing the gunman an hour later.
“Another aspect that I think not too many people are aware of was that at some point in time, when the action did occur, the hostage taker had surrounded himself with his hostages,” Mr. Aquino told a midnight news conference.
“He used them as body shields which made our forces hesitate to employ deadly force,” he added.
Mr. Aquino said Mendoza had not seemed to be a hard-core criminal or terrorist and “that led us to believe that this could be settled peacefully, without loss of life.”
“We will be enhancing and providing funds to support the training and acquire equipment that seemed to be so lacking,” Mr. Aquino said.
“There was a television set inside the bus. Unfortunately, Mendoza got a glimpse of what the police were up to. So we lost our element of surprise,” Robredo told dwIZ radio.
Meantime, President Aquino has declared a day of national mourning today.
“These deaths are a great loss to the peoples of Hong Kong and the Philippines, and call for the most solemn commemoration and respect at a time of grief for our two peoples,” Mr. Aquino stated in Proclamation 23. – With Delon Porcalla, Alexis Romero