Hong Kong tourists who survived the bus hijacking in Manila have corroborated testimony by the driver that their captor shot the victims at close range, a top official said on Monday.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, head of the government inquiry into the Aug. 23 hostage-taking which left eight tourists dead, said five survivors had given statements to Philippine police sent to Hong Kong last week.
“The account of the survivors tends to corroborate the material points, and the account of the driver (Alberto) Lubang. Meaning (the victims were shot at) close range with an M-16 rifle,” she told reporters.
De Lima said it was possible that the deaths of the tourists were not caused by police fire, as had been earlier suggested. But she said she had yet to see the ballistics report to better determine whose firearms killed the hostages.
Lubang told the inquiry last week that while he was handcuffed to the steering wheel, he saw in the rear view mirror the hostage-taker, sacked police officer Rolando Mendoza, shoot the victims one by one.
Lubang said he used a nail file to pick the handcuffs and then jumped out the window shortly before police commandos launched a rescue operation.
Armed with an M-16 and a pistol, Mendoza seized the busload of Hong Kong tourists earlier that day in a crazed bid to clear himself of extortion charges and regain his job.
Eight of the tourists were killed while seven others were wounded in a hail of gunfire as police launched an assault to end the 11-hour hostage-taking drama.
Hostages fought back
De Lima said that, based on the survivors’ accounts, at least two of those who died tried to fight off the gunman but were overpowered.
“One tried to grab the muzzle of the gun, but was killed. Another one charged the hostage-taker, but was also shot,” she said.
Another survivor, who hid under a chair, said she saw Mendoza shoot a young girl as she tried to run to her brother who was seated from across the aisle.
“It would appear from the survivors’ account that the shooting by Mendoza happened before the assault, that is what is emerging now,” De Lima said.
Last week, the secretary said she could not rule out the possibility that “friendly fire” from rescuing police officers may have also hit the hostages. But Hong Kong investigators indicated that the fatal gunshots came from inside the bus, she said.
“The forensic results that did not find gunpowder smudges, do not necessarily rule out close range,” she said.
Several officers have already been suspended amid criticism that the rescue had been bungled. The crisis has also strained ties between the Philippines and Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of Filipinos work mostly as maids.
President Benigno Aquino III has said he expected final results of the inquiry by Wednesday, after which a high-level team of officials would be dispatched to Hong Kong to explain the report.
Philippine Daily Inquirer