Philippines admits police may have shot some hostages

MANILA (AFP) – Philippine investigators admitted for the first time Thursday that police may have shot some of the tourists in a bungled operation that left eight Hong Kong residents dead on a bus in Manila.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday: "There is a big possibility that there (was) friendly fire," adding experts are convinced some bullets could not have been fired by the hostage-taker.

De Lima, head of an official inquiry, also said the forensic reports on some of the slain victims did not match the account of the driver of the tourist bus, who had told investigators the gunman shot the tourists at close range.

"What is crucial, occupying our minds, is if the shots were made at close range, (these) are not consistent with forensic findings," she added.

Asked whether at least some of the victims could have been killed by "friendly fire," de Lima said: "We are not focusing (on that), but we should never miss that. Otherwise our report will be less than thorough."

Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took a busload of tourists hostage on August 23 in a desperate bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his old job back.

Eight of the tourists were killed and seven others were injured in the central Manila standoff. Police initially insisted the bullets that killed the tourists were all fired from Mendoza's guns.

Other bullets were fired into the bus by police snipers and an assault unit but they did not result in fatalities, police had said.

Filipino bus driver Alberto Lubang demonstrates what happened on the hijacked bus in Manila. AFP file

The panel has asked the Hong Kong police to help with the ballistics aspect of the investigation, and a group of Philippine investigators are currently in the Chinese territory awaiting their counterparts' findings, she said.

De Lima said she expects to submit a report of the hostage incident to President Benigno Aquino late next week.

"Where did the shots come from, the hostage-taker, the assault team, or other teams? We doubt they all came from snipers and assault teams," said de Lima, raising the possibility that other police units deployed in the area could have fired into the bus.

Ballistics experts have demonstrated to the panel that some of the bullets that hit the bus were fired from a distance further than the location of the snipers, she said.

De Lima said she has ordered the guns of police units deployed in the area during the crisis, apart from the 28 guns used by the hostage rescue unit, to be tested to determine whether they matched any bullets that went into the vehicle.

Aquino has taken responsibility for the fiasco that has chilled ties with Hong Kong and damaged the Philippine tourism industry.

Aquino also said he will form an elite force based on Britain's SAS to handle future hostage incidents.

"The training and maintenance of these elite forces is expensive. England, for all its wealth, has only 200 people in their SAS, who are trained to that level," Aquino said in a live television interview.

"We will copy to a degree the formation of that national unit," he added.

The special force would be an integrated military and police team, numbering between 200 and 400, to respond to any threat in any part of the country, he said.

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