Philippine police admit blunders in hostage drama

MANILA (AFP) – Philippine police conceded Tuesday they had made blunders ending a bus hijacking as outrage grew over the bloody assault that was played out on live television and left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.

Commandos fired dozens of bullets into the bus and smashed its windows with sledgehammers as they tried to storm it, but were then forced to wait outside helplessly for over an hour as the hijacker used his captives as human shields.

Philippine forensic experts look for evidence on the tourist bus which was hijacked by an ex-policeman in Manila on August 24. AFP

The stand-off in Manila's tourist district on Monday finally ended when police fired tear gas into the bus and a sniper shot the gunman in the head, but by then eight of the tourists on board had been killed.

Amid a storm of criticism from Hong Kong's government and people around the world who watched the shoot-out live on television, Manila police commander Leocadio Santiago admitted mistakes had been made.

"We saw some obvious shortcomings in terms of capability and tactics used, or the procedure employed and we are now going to investigate this," Santiago said on local television.

He and President Benigno Aquino promised to investigate all aspects of the 12-hour ordeal, which began when a disgruntled sacked policeman armed with an M-16 assault rifle hijacked a bus carrying 25 people, mostly Hong Kong tourists.

Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, expressed anger at the handling of the crisis and insisted he get answers.

"We demand that the Philippine authorities conduct a detailed and comprehensive investigation on the incident. They must provide a full account to us as soon as possible," Tsang said.

Tsang also urged all Hong Kong tour groups in the Philippines to return home, and organised two chartered flights to take relatives of the hostages, as well as psychologists, doctors and social workers, to Manila.

Flags flew at half mast and the Hong Kong stock exchange observed a minute's silence as the shocked territory mourned the victims, while media focused on the perceived ineptitude of the Philippine police in handling the crisis.

"The Philippine government.... I can't accept this. Why did they do this to us?" one survivor identified as Mrs Leung told Hong Kong officials who flew to the Manila hospital, in comments shown on Cable News TV. The gunman "did not want to kill us. He only shot us after the negotiations failed."

Leung said her husband and two daughters aged 21 and 14 were killed in the shoot-out, while her 18-year-old son was in intensive care in Manila.

In comments echoed throughout the territory's media, the Hong Kong Economic Journal criticised the Philippine police for their inability to get into the bus after storming it.

"Their appalling professional standards and the lack of strategic planning made observers both angry and sad. This tragedy could have been avoided," the paper said.

Aquino acknowledged in a pre-dawn press conference that the tragedy highlighted many flaws in the ability of Philippine security forces to handle hostage situations.

"There are a lot of things (that) resulted in a tragedy. Obviously we should be improving," said Aquino, who took office less than two months ago.

One of the problems he emphasised was the way the crisis played out through the media, with the gunman allowed to speak on radio and watch events live on the bus's television, giving him insights into police actions.

But Aquino nevertheless insisted waiting more than 10 hours before storming the bus was the right course of action, because police believed until that point they could convince the gunman to surrender.

The gunman, former senior inspector Rolando Mendoza, hijacked the bus in a crazed attempt to clear himself of charges of extortion that led to him being discharged from the police force in 2008.

Mendoza, 55, had demanded that the ombudsman re-open an investigation into his case, which centred on accusations he tried to extort money from a man accused of drug trafficking.

Before being discharged, he was regarded as a model officer, once being named as among the top 10 policemen in the country.

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