Children Held in Manila Bus Siege Are Released

By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
International Herald Tribune
Published: March 28, 2007


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MANILA, March 28 — The owner of a daycare center gave himself up after taking a busload of his students hostage here today. He had driven them to Manila City Hall, where he railed against corruption in Philippine politics through a loudspeaker and criticized the government for failing to provide education for the poor.

Police said Armando Ducat Jr. and at least two other men were armed with hand grenades and other weapons when they took over the bus with 32 children and two teachers who were on their way to a field trip.

Later, after nearly 10 hours since the stand-off began, the hostage-takers released the schoolchildren and the teachers unharmed.

One by one, the children — some of them holding up toys that Mr. Ducat had given to them earlier in the day — stepped out of the tourist bus.

They were calm, even playful, with some of the children chanting Mr. Ducat’s name, as they made their way to a government bus that was to take them to an undisclosed location.

Mr. Ducat and his unidentified cohorts turned over their grenades and guns to the police. Mr. Ducat had earlier said that he was ready to face charges.

Among Mr. Ducat’s demands, which he had relayed to a senator, Bong Revilla, who met him inside the bus, was free education for the children on the bus and the dozens of other children at his school who will finish kindergarten this month.

Ducat is a friend of Mr. Revilla and the godfather of the senator’s second child.

“He said he would not harm the children as long as his demands are met,” Mr. Revilla said at the scene outside the Manila City Hall during the stand-off.

In his conversation with Mr. Ducat inside the bus, which was picked up by a television network, Mr. Revilla told Mr. Ducat: “All right, I promise before the Filipino people and God, that I will be responsible for the education of these children.”

The hostage-taking riveted the country. Television and radio networks broadcast the drama live.

Mr. Ducat’s criticism of national politics came at the height of campaigning for the midterm elections scheduled in May.

As in past elections, corruption is among the central issues in the current campaign.

“I love these children,” Mr Ducat told the radio station DZMM, which he called by telephone in the morning. “That’s why I am here,”

He said if violence ensued, it would not be his fault and asked the police to back off.

Later, speaking through a microphone from the bus, Mr. Ducat criticized the government for spending money on projects like improvements to parks rather than new schools in poor areas.

He said corruption was to blame, citing recent surveys that ranked the Philippines as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Ducat said he was upset that the children who finished kindergarten at his school in a slum in Manila would not get college education.

“I have 300 pupils, 145 have finished kindergarten,” Mr. Ducat said. “I can only give them education until kindergarten. I’m asking politicians a guarantee that these 145 pupils will be given proper education.” If the politicians could do that, he said, “I will surrender.”

The Philippine education system has been deteriorating over the years, experts say. There is a chronic lack of school buildings, teachers, books, and even desks around the country, particularly in rural areas where many students have to walk for hours — many of them carrying their own chairs — to reach the nearest school.

Mr. Ducat urged Filipinos not to put their future in the hands of politicians.

“Vote according to your conscience,” he said. “But watch those you vote into office.”

Officials said this was the second time that Mr. Ducat had taken hostages.

In 1998, he took two priests hostage over a financial dispute; charges were dropped because he used a fake grenade.

Mr. Ducat’s friends said he was passionate about social issues and actively tried to solve other people’s problems.

In 2001, he tried to run for congress in Manila but was disqualified for unspecified reasons.

“I know him as a very, very passionate individual who has his own kind of thinking on the solutions to our problems,” Manila’s mayor, Lito Atienza, said today. “But we cannot agree with his ways.”

Parents had appealed to Mr. Ducat to release the children, but he refused and asked for understanding. “To the parents of the children, I am asking for justice so they can have continued education up to college,” he said. He did release one of the children who had a fever.

During the stand-off, television footage showed the children on the bus playfully facing the crowd outside, waving, making faces and laughing.

Lyn Ocita, one of the teachers on the bus, told the DZMM radio station that the children were not harmed. “We’re playing with the children, they are not crying,” she said during the stand-off. “They don’t know they’re being” held hostage.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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