These were the words of President Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Aquino III on Thursday as he expressed regret over the handling of the August 23 hostage crisis that left eight Hong Kong hostages and the hostage-taker himself, a dismissed policeman, dead.
The President assured the public that measures are being undertaken to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
"This incident will not define this administration. In the end, my administration will be judged on what we have accomplished and what we will accomplish in the coming years: a reduction in poverty and the restoration of a government that is honest in its efforts to build a better nation," Aquino said during a rare panel interview with television news anchors from the country's three biggest broadcast networks.
"Our government is now focused on taking the necessary steps to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again," he said.
Orders were not followed
Aquino admitted that he erred in trusting the reports reaching him about what officials were doing during the crisis, and reiterated his frustration at the way the police officials on the ground handled the crisis.
Aquino said he was repeatedly assured that the Special Action Force (SAF), which he said is capable of handling such a situation, would immediately be deployed to the Quirino Grandstand in case there is a need for a tactical assault.
Instead, it was the Manila police's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit that assaulted the bus once the hostage-taker, Rolando Mendoza, began firing.
The president said he lost his cool when he saw that the SWAT team did not appear to have its actions planned out.
"Nung nangyari na po yung pagbaril sa gulong ng bus, yung napakatagal na pagapasok ng SWAT, yung hindi alam yung gagawin ng SWAT, dun po talagang napuno na tayo na yung assurances na binibigay sa atin eh hindi po natupad at tumungo tayo at hinanap na natin yung mga opisyal na concerned," he said.
(When they shot the wheels of the bus, and then it took them such a long time, they didn't appear to know what they would do, that's when I ran out of patience because the assurances given to me were not fulfilled. I went looking for the officials concerned.)
He said the last straw was when he saw the SWAT team pounding on various bus windows with sledgehammers, as the assault should have been strategic.
The president then proceeded to Emerald restaurant in Manila where some officials were at that time, including Interior Secretary Rico Puno and National Capital Region police chief Director Leocadio Santiago, who was working hand-in-hand with ground commander Manila police chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay.
Despite the errors in the handling of the crisis, Aquino said he is waiting for the findings of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, before deciding which officials will be removed from office for their failings during the hostage crisis.
He said only Santiago, a former SAF director, offered to resign, saying, "I'm offering my head sir, do it if it's necessary and I believe it's necessary."
"In hindsight perhaps I should have taken a more active role in the sense that yung belief ko Gen. Santiago would oversee Gen. Magtibay properly and completely did not happen," said the president.
He also said he wished he had the time to sit down with the media to ascertain how the sensitive incident should have been covered.
Aquino said that aside from the IIRC probe, the government is also reviewing the equipment of the Philippine National Police to improve the effectiveness of law enforcers in ensuring public safety.
He pointed out that he went to Camp Bagong Diwa last week to inspect the warehouses of the PNP to check if the equipment were defective.
"There really is proof to question some of these items," he said, adding that processes of the police's bids and awards committee will also be reviewed.
Aquino said a letter of apology and the IIRC's findings will be presented to the Hong Kong government by a high-level delegation led by Vice-President Jejomar Binay once the probe is finished.
The president said further possible tension with Hong Kong was avoided when the Philippine government chose not to respond negatively to what he called an "insulting" letter from the Hong Kong government after the crisis.
"Yung sulat ng opisyal na galing sa gobyerno ng Hong Kong na sa ating tingin ay nakaka-insulto ay hindi na rin po natin ni-respond, dinaan na lang po natin sa kanilang People’s Republic of China government na iparating na hindi ho yata tama ito hong sulat na ipinadala, hindi natin nagustuhan yung tono," he said.
(We didn't respond to a letter sent by the Hong Kong government which we found insulting, we just coursed through the People's Republic of China government that we think it's not right, we didn't like the tone.)
Aquino said the letter was addressed to him and contained "very minute details of what we are supposed to do," but refused to give further information.
The panel interview with Mel Tiangco of GMA Network, Ted Failon of ABS-CBN, and Paolo Bediones of TV5, conducted in Malacañang, was held to settle the questions regarding the president's handling of the hostage crisis.
Aquino ‘satisfied’ with SAF skills demo
After the interview, as if to underscore his vow not to allow a repeat of the August 23 fiasco, Aquino went to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City to attend a live demonstration by SAF members of their unit’s capability to conduct rescue operations in instances of hostage-taking.
Aquino watched as around 20 SAF operatives in full battle gear assaulted a parked bus in the middle of a field inside the camp — three times according to three scenarios.
For the first scenario, an explosive device was detonated at the door of the bus, supposedly to distract the hostage-taker, while operatives broke the windows of the bus, entered through the breach, overpowered the hostage-taker and rescued the hostage.
During the second scenario, SAF members also detonated an explosive at the door, where they entered and performed the same rescue operation.
Lastly, in the third scenario, a V150 police armored vehicle was rammed against the front part of the bus to force it open.
Each of the simulated assaults took less than five minutes — an obvious improvement from the MPD SWAT assault during the August 23 hostage crisis, which took over an hour.
Aquino expressed satisfaction with the demonstrations and vowed that the government will work for the upgrading of the SAF’s training and equipment.
“Nakita niyo ‘yung ginagamit yung maso, talagang hindi ginagawa ‘yun. ‘Yung paglagay ng charges sa pag-blast ng windows, hindi bara-bara. Sinusukat para appropriate lang para walang danger sa mga pasahero. So, andito ang knowledge, andyan ang equipment, ipinakita nila. Ipinakita rito yung fitness ng troops and the systems in place," the President said.
(First you saw that sledgehammers should really not be used. The placing of the charges to blast the windows was not sloppy, but carefully calculated to avoid danger to the passengers. So here they displayed the knowledge, the equipment. What was shown here was the fitness of the troops and the systems in place.)
“This is what I was expecting. (This is the) bottomline," he added.
Aquino is scheduled to witness two more demonstrations by the Navy Special Operations Group on Friday morning at Sangley Point in Cavite, and by the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija in the afternoon.– VVP/JV, GMANews.TV