Philippines Leader Faults Police Over Hostage Crisis

By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: September 9, 2010

MANILA — President Benigno S. Aquino III of the Philippines acknowledged Thursday that he could have taken a more hands-on approach in orchestrating police tactics during a hostage crisis that left eight members of a tour group dead, but he also blamed the police for mishandling the daylong siege, during which police fire may have hit some of the tourists.

In a 90-minute live interview with the country’s three largest television networks, Mr. Aquino also lashed out at leaders in Hong Kong, where the slain tourists came from. Donald Tsang, the chief executive of Hong Kong, had complained that Mr. Aquino did not take his telephone call during the standoff.

Hong Kong leaders sent a letter after the crisis, Mr. Aquino said, but he chose to ignore it, saying he found the letter “insulting.”

“We were told in very minute detail what we were supposed to do.”

Thursday’s statements by Mr. Aquino, as well as a disclosure from an Aquino cabinet member that police fire may have hit some of the tourists, are likely to continue to strain relations between the Philippines and China.

The authorities in Hong Kong have been critical of the way the 12-hour standoff was handled, and news outlets there have carried reports of police and government missteps in the case on a near-daily basis. Leaders in Beijing have pressed for a thorough and rapid investigation.

Seven tourists from Hong Kong and their tour guide were killed on Aug. 23 when their bus was commandeered by a former police officer, Rolando Mendoza. Mr. Mendoza, who had been dismissed by the Manila Police Department over extortion charges, demanded that he be reinstated in exchange for the release of the tourists.

As negotiations collapsed, gunfire was heard within the bus. Mr. Mendoza was killed by a police sniper.

Much of the Thursday’s televised discussion focused on whether Mr. Aquino, who took office in June, should have played a more direct role in dealing with the hostage crisis.

“I presumed that I could trust officials when they assured me that everything is OK. But that was not the case,” Mr. Aquino said, later adding, “Perhaps I should have taken a more active role.”

But the president said he trusted the police officials on the scene.

“They promised and guaranteed to me that hostages would be safe but that did not happen,” Mr. Aquino said. He admitted to being frustrated as the situation deteriorated, saying he had to rush to a restaurant near the scene of the standoff to learn what was happening.

Mr. Aquino said he would wait for the result of a government investigation of the incident before deciding on measures that needed to be taken. The panel investigating the crisis, headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, is expected to wrap up its investigations next week.

On Thursday, she said that “there is a big possibility” that some of the hostages may have been hit by “friendly fire.” She said ballistic experts had indicated that Mr. Mendoza could not have killed all the slain tourists.

In televised public hearings during the past week, the panel investigating the standoff has focused on questioning police officers, who have testified about alleged missteps. In its hearing on Wednesday, for example, the committee learned that police dispatchers entered erroneous time logs about the incident.

About Carlos H. Conde

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