MANILA, Philippines—Did the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) group get a tip that dismissed Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza was going to commandeer a busload of Hong Kong tourists that led them to deploy at Rizal Park 45 minutes ahead of the hijacker?
The question arose Tuesday on the fourth day of marathon hearings into the botched hostage rescue drama on Aug. 23 after the fact-finding committee headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima received conflicting accounts of the hijacking timeline.
In a closed-door hearing in the morning, De Lima said that SWAT members testified that their headquarters received a call at 9:07 a.m. on that fateful day about a hostage-taking incident.
The team then deployed at 9:15 a.m., De Lima said, recounting the SWAT members’ testimony.
However, bus driver Alberto Lubang told the committee later Tuesday that Mendoza, armed with an M-16 Armalite, seized his vehicle with 22 Hong Kong tourists and three Filipinos aboard at 9:45 a.m.
Lubang said he then proceeded to Rizal Park where he arrived about 15 minutes later, according to previous accounts.
Lubang’s testimony was corroborated by tourist guide Diana Chan in an earlier affidavit and her travel agency’s assistant manager Lourdes Amansec, who appeared before the panel on Monday night, according to De Lima.
Chan was one of the first two captives released by Mendoza in the hostage drama that ended 11 hours later with a police assault.
Eight Hong Kong tourists were killed, along with Mendoza, in the blaze of gunfire before an international television audience. The bloodbath provoked anger in China and Hong Kong and prompted global condemnation of the Aquino administration for its ineptness.
De Lima said security guards and employees of the United Philippines Line had reported they saw Mendoza alight from a blue car in front of their building on Arzobispado and Santa Clara Streets at 9:30 a.m. dressed in full battle gear, with a ball cap, a long firearm and a backpack.
“How can there be a hostage-taking report at 9:07 a.m. if Mendoza only arrived at Fort Santiago at 9:30 a.m.?” a visibly bothered De Lima asked.
She said that during the executive session, the SWAT members and the police snipers stood by their statement that they received a call to respond to a hostage-taking incident at 9:07 a.m.
Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, vice chair of the committee, pleaded with Lubang to try to “refresh [your] memory,” underscoring the importance of the sequence of time and events.
Lubang replied that he could be helped by the trip ticket, wherein he logged the time the group left Manila Pavilion hotel, where the tourists were billeted, and the time they arrived at Fort Santiago.
Who is right?
The driver said the trip ticket was left inside the ill-fated bus that was subsequently directed by Mendoza to proceed in front of Quirino Grandstand.
“I think everybody realizes this is very crucial. Who is right and who is wrong?” De Lima said, pointing out the SWAT team had deployed 45 minutes ahead of the hijacker and his hostages at the park. “What is this?” she asked.
Arturo Paglinawan, a lawyer for the officers, told the Inquirer Tuesday night the SWAT testimony was “an honest mistake” and that he was preparing a letter to the committee correcting the police timeline.
In his testimony, Lubang also recounted how Mendoza opened fire at the tourists after his demand for reinstatement and dismissal of extortion and robbery charges against him was rejected.
Lubang said his left hand was handcuffed to the steering wheel and he saw the horrific scenes unfold at the back of the bus through the rear-view mirror as the daylong standoff ended in a bloodbath.
“I heard the first shot and then I saw a hostage cuffed to the stairwell fall down,” said the shaven-headed, 38-year-old driver.
Shooting left and right
“Seconds later he (the gunman) had reached the back and (was) shooting again at the passengers sat there,” he said.
“He was on the aisle, by the middle. I saw him by the rear-view mirror. He was shooting left and right. Afterward he went into a crouch,” he added.
Lubang said he managed to unlock the handcuffs using a nail file and jumped out of the window beside the steering wheel shortly before police launched an assault and gunned down Mendoza.
He said he did not recall any crying or shouting by the victims, but conceded it was possible his hearing had been deadened by the gunshot blasts inside the vehicle.
The driver said the 55-year-old Mendoza was not hostile in the first six hours of the crisis, had cracked jokes and even ordered his hostages to use their mobile phones to tell their relatives that they had been taken captive.
His demeanor changed when he felt his request to be reinstated to the Manila police force was rejected after he read a letter from the Ombudsman, the witness said.
Lubang said Mendoza became further enraged when he saw policemen arresting his younger brother, also a policeman, who had earlier helped in the negotiations and was later detained on suspicion of conspiring with his older brother.
“If you don’t release him, I will finish them all. I will kill all of them,” he quoted Mendoza as saying in Filipino.
The driver said he escaped soon after Mendoza ordered him to drive the bus forward. Snipers deflated the tires and the driver jumped out as police prepared to storm the vehicle.
Lubang said he remembered telling police debriefers: “He (Mendoza) has killed all of them.”
The committee later in the afternoon went to the scene of the hostage drama, the spot used as police command center and the nearby police community precinct at nearby Ermita.
The inquiry, which has uncovered a series of embarrassing mistakes by the police and local officials handling the hostage crisis, is expected to wind up Wednesday.
The committee is set to write a report by the middle of this month to President Benigno Aquino III, who has taken responsibility for the botched rescue.
Nikko Dizon, Phil. Daily Inquirer