Philippines acknowledges mistakes in handling hostage crisis that killed 8 Hong Kong tourists

By Oliver Teves, AP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Philippines mourns, HK angry after hijack deaths

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines acknowledged “inadequacies” in handling a hostage crisis that killed eight Hong Kong tourists, as anger over the botched negotiations erupted Tuesday in Hong Kong with demonstrations and harsh words.

A heartbreaking picture emerged of the victims — a mother of three who lost her husband and two daughters, a teenager oblivious of her parents’ death and a tour guide who aspired to become a yoga teacher.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, facing his first major crisis since taking office on June 30, declared Wednesday a national day of mourning in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong to “share their sorrow,” his spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

Officials promised a full investigation into how the hijacker — a former policeman demanding his job back — was able to gun down eight of the 15 Hong Kong hostages on board the bus before a sniper killed him and officers were finally able to get into the vehicle. Seven other hostages survived the final bloodbath, which came after a 12-hour standoff at a seaside Manila park.

Philippine Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, acknowledged Tuesday there were problems with how the crisis was handled.

“Had we been better prepared, better equipped, better trained, maybe the response would have been quicker despite the difficulty,” Robredo said.

He added, “All the inadequacies happened at the same time.”

Philippine police had defended their actions — pointing out that officers lacking proper equipment had risked their lives in trying to bring the standoff to an end. But they promised to review all events leading to the deaths.

In Hong Kong, sorrow quickly evolved into outrage, with several of the semiautonomous Chinese territory’s political parties leading protesters to the Philippine Consulate.

Demonstrators chanted, “You caused the deaths of Hong Kongers,” and one protester scuffled with a security guard.

“We think the Philippine government used the wrong strategy. We think the operation failed,” pro-Beijing legislator Lau Kong-wah told reporters.

Several Hong Kong newspapers printed mastheads in black, and flags in the territory flew at half-staff.

“Filipino police incompetent,” Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily News said in a front-page headline.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Committee added its voice to demands for an explanation, but also was “deeply concerned by people who are trying to blow this incident out of proportion” and who might vent anger through retaliatory attacks against thousands of Filipinos who work there, mostly as maids.

“This tragedy should not become a conflict of nationalities,” it said in a statement.

Aquino on Tuesday met Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao and phoned Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang to brief them on the investigation into the crisis that started when a dismissed police officer armed with a M16 rifle and a pistol seized a busload of 21 Hong Kong tourists and four Filipinos to demand his reinstatement on the force.

The ordeal ended in bloodshed on live TV with police storming the bus and killing the gunman, 55-year-old Rolando Mendoza, after he fired at the tourists.

Of the 25 people originally on the bus, 13 of the Hong Kong tourists and four Filipinos survived. Nine of the survivors had been freed by Mendoza hours before the gunfire began.

Britain’s Foreign Office said Tuesday that two of the hostages who were released were British nationals.

At the scene of the standoff, family of two dead hostages attended a Buddhist memorial ceremony Tuesday.

The tearful relatives trailed monks who walked around bus, sprinkling water around the bullet-pocked vehicle. Survivor Amy Ng mourned the deaths of her husband Ken Leung, whom she said confronted the gunman, and daughters Doris and Jessie, aged 21 and 14. Her son, Jason, was still hospitalized after an operation on a head wound.

“I thought I would fight for survival so I could take care of my children, but two of them have already died,” a sobbing Ng said Tuesday.

A bedridden, catatonic Tracey Wong told Hong Kong reporters she hid under a seat in the bus while Mendoza fired at the hostages.

“I want to find daddy and mommy quickly and see if they’re OK,” the 15-year-old said. But Hong Kong’s radio RTHK reported that both her parents were among those killed, identifying her father as 51-year-old Wong Tze-lam.

Tour operator Hong Thai Travel Services general manager Susanna Lau praised a slain tour guide, 31-year-old Masa Tse, for his vigilance and decade-long service. TV footage showed him peeking out of the bus during his captivity and later one hand handcuffed to a position near the bus door.

Tse had studied yoga in India and wanted to become an instructor, Hong Kong’s Cable TV reported, citing his friends. His Facebook page was flooded with messages of condolences. “I know you did your best to protect members of your tour group. You were very brave. Rest in peace. I will always miss you,” friend Tulip Lam wrote.

Hong Kong has canceled tours to the Philippines and asked Hong Kong tourists still in the country to leave.

Philippine Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said the crisis would likely damage the industry. About 140,000 Hong Kong tourists come annually.

“I’m hoping it will be forgotten soon enough,” he said in a Manila hospital, where some of the former hostages were treated.

“We will try to improve ourselves and assure the Hong Kong government and the rest of the world that we will be able to handle matters much better in the future,” he said.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila, Min Lee in Hong Kong and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.

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