Philippine police `gave up chances` to shoot hijacker

Filipino authorities admit to many errors that led to hostages being killed.

Manila: Philippine police gave up many chances to shoot a sacked colleague who seized a busload of Hong Kong tourists, authorities said on Friday as they admitted to many errors that led to eight hostages being killed.

The country`s police chief left Manila halfway through the crisis, the force`s best-trained unit sat out a bungled assault on the bus and the media were allowed to run wild, a public inquiry was told.

Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno and police chief Jesus Verzosa admitted there were repeated opportunities for snipers to shoot the hijacker during the day-long standoff, which was aired around the world on live television.

"There were a lot of chances where we could (have taken) him down," Puno told the inquiry.

"The general idea then was we would just tire him out and he would release the hostages."

Sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took the busload of tourists hostage on August 23 in Manila in a desperate bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his job back.

For much of the day the negotiating team believed Mendoza was cooperative, Puno said, borne out by his decision to free about a third of the 25 hostages as he bargained for authorities to re-open the extortion case against him.

"By all indications he would release all of them," Puno said.

But Mendoza, armed with an M-16 assault rifle and a pistol, started shooting about 10 hours into the ordeal after he saw his brother, also a Manila police officer, being detained just outside the bus.

The ill-prepared police were then forced to assault the bus, but were unable to get in and another hour went by before a sniper eventually shot Mendoza dead.

Asked if the authorities had failed in assessing Mendoza`s readiness to kill the hostages, Puno told the inquiry: "Most probably, that is the case".

Verzosa told the inquiry he agreed with the decision not to kill Mendoza early on.

"There was no outward indication that he will hurt the hostages," Verzosa said.

"During the time that he was exposed it was foreseen that a peaceful resolution was at hand."

Verzosa said he flew from Manila to the southern Philippines four hours into the crisis to attend an official function.

He said he was in the air and unable to communicate with his personnel in charge of the hostage negotiations for about an hour, and then was only able to watch events unfold on television 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Manila.

Versoza defended his actions, insisting the visit to the south was important because he had to meet officials there on insurgency and terrorism issues.

The police chief said he did eventually fly back to Manila, after the bloodbath was over.

Verzosa also acknowledged that the Manila police rescue squad sent to storm the bus and end the crisis was not the best-trained or best-equipped unit at the government`s disposal.

The assault squad that did go in did not have critical equipment, including special explosives that could have allowed them entry into the bus immediately, he said. It took them an hour using sledgehammers and rope.

The unit best-equipped to handle the situation, the police Special Action Force, was in the area but sat out the assault until the last five to 10 minutes, Verzosa said.

Verzosa said he had not wanted to overrule the decision of the Manila police chief to not use the Special Action Force initially.

Both Verzosa and Puno also said the police failed to control the crowd, while television and radio stations continued to broadcast the crisis.

This allowed Mendoza to monitor what was going on around him via a television on board, which police failed to disable.

The inquiry, headed by the justice secretary, is scheduled to finish its hearings on Monday.

Puno, President Benigno Aquino`s pointman for the hostage crisis, said he would take responsibility for the failed rescue.

However Aquino, speaking to reporters elsewhere, said that the Philippine President must shoulder responsibility.

"At the end of the day, I am responsible for everything that has transpired," Aquino said.

Bureau Report

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