Manila: The Philippine President vowed on Thursday that "someone will pay" for the bus hostage crisis that killed Hong Kong tourists as senators began grilling senior police officers over the deadly fiasco.
Addressing students and teachers at a suburban university, President Benigno Aquino III said the nearly 12-hour hostage-taking drama on Monday was "ghastly" and admitted there were "many failures”, but stopped short of directly blaming the police.
"What happened should not happen again," he said. "Someone failed, someone will pay."
At the Senate investigation, Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay said he gave the order to assault the bus carrying a Hong Kong tour guide and 20 tourists after hearing shots following a breakdown in the negotiations with the hostage-taker.
The man, a Manila policeman who had been dismissed and was demanding reinstatement, released several children and elderly hostages early on, but later opened fire on the remaining hostages. Eight people were killed before a police sniper took out the gunman.
In Hong Kong, business was halted in the bustling Asian financial centre for a three-minute tribute on Thursday morning to the slain tourists.
Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang and hundreds of citizens bowed their heads as both the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised and then lowered to half-mast in a downtown square. Residents elsewhere in the city also paused to pay their respects.
The daylong standoff between the bus hijacker and police — broadcast live on TV — stunned residents in Hong Kong, a safe, affluent city that rarely sees violent crimes. Locals expressed outrage at the Philippine government's handling of the situation, with Internet users heaping verbal abuse on Aquino.
Aquino and other officials have promised a full investigation. Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, has acknowledged there were problems with how the crisis was handled, including inadequacies in preparation, equipment and training.
Magtibay has taken leave and four leaders of the assault team that eventually stormed the bus have been relieved pending an investigation. Officials have said the firearms used by 200 police commandos will be subjected to ballistic tests to see if some of the hostages were hit by police gunfire.
Magtibay told the senators that he "honestly believed" assurances by his assault team leader that they were prepared and were carrying the right equipment for the operation.
However, Sen Miguel Zubiri pointed out the police SWAT team did not have ladders or bus window blasters, and the rope they used as a makeshift tool to pry open the vehicle's door easily snapped.
Another police officer testified that the team did not have a "flash-bang grenade”, a standard weapon used by police commandos to stun a hostage-taker.
"It was Band-Aid solutions as we went along, but the element of surprise had already gone," Zubiri said. "If you are a foreigner, you will no longer come to visit the Philippines because you have seen in the news that the police are not adequately trained."
The security committee of Hong Kong's Legislative Council was scheduled to hold its own hearing on the killings on Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, gunmen wearing police uniforms stopped a passenger bus in the southern Philippines on Thursday and fatally shot four people, including two police marshals, officials said. The area is home to Muslim rebels and several criminal gangs.
The bus attacked after it was flagged down at a road checkpoint by the gunmen, said Orlando Vinas, the Lanao del Norte provincial police chief. They ordered the passengers to get off and then killed four people, including two uniformed police marshals, the driver and the bus conductor, said Vinas.
The bodies of the eight Hong Kong hostages killed on Monday were flown home late Wednesday. Two wounded survivors also returned to continue medical treatment at Hong Kong hospitals.
Another survivor, Jason Leung, identified by Canadian media as a Canadian citizen, remained hospitalised in Manila after surgery on a head wound. Hong Kong's Acting Secretary for Food and Health Gabriel Leung told reporters late Wednesday that his condition has improved and officials may move him to a Hong Kong hospital as well.
First Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 15:56