By Oliver Teves
The Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines — Most survivors of this week’s tragic hostage drama in Manila flew home to Hong Kong on Wednesday, along with the bodies of eight slain tourists, while the Philippines grappled with outrage over its mishandling of the standoff.
“None of us wanted this outcome,” President Benigno Aquino III told reporters.
The interior secretary has acknowledged that the police were ill-prepared, which may have led to bloodshed Monday when the hostage-taker, a disgruntled ex-policeman demanding his job back, opened fire on hostages. Eight of the bus passengers were killed in the standoff and others were wounded. A police sniper eventually killed the hostage-taker.
He had released nine other passengers hours earlier. Seven others were rescued from the bullet-riddled bus, three of them in serious condition.
One of the injured will remain in intensive care in Manila, and another will be transported home on a medivac plane, said Hong Kong Undersecretary for Security T.K. Lai.
The rest flew home aboard a chartered Cathay Pacific plane together with the eight coffins, which were loaded onto the aircraft after a Buddhist ceremony and a send-off by a Philippine navy honor guard.
Aquino, 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. Flags were lowered at government offices and embassies.
China demanded a full investigation. The Chinese ambassador visited Aquino on Tuesday, and the president said he talked on the phone with Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang. Aquino said he “expressed our sorrow and grief … and we begged for their understanding.”
Philippine Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, has acknowledged that there were problems with how the crisis was handled, including inadequacies in preparation, equipment, and training.
Manila police Chief Rodolfo Magtibay took leave, and four leaders of the assault team were relieved. The firearms used by 200 police commandos will be subjected to ballistic tests to determine if some of the hostages were hit by police gunfire, officials said.
Police recovered about 60 empty shells from an M-16 rifle, the same firearm used by hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, inside the bus.
Authorities have also been criticized for failing to prevent Mendoza’s brother, Gregorio, who is also a policeman, from intervening in the negotiations.
“He wasn’t even cleared when he entered the scene,” Aquino said of Gregorio, who has been charged with obstruction of justice. “When he entered, they discovered that he was armed.”
Police officials said Gregorio urged his brother not to continue the talks unless authorities returned Gregorio’s firearm, which was confiscated from him during the standoff. Gregorio then threw a tantrum in front of TV cameras, which were broadcasting the daylong drama live, apparently prompting his brother to start shooting.
The bus driver, Alberto Lubang, who said he escaped as the hostage-taker opened fire, said the gunman was watching Gregorio resisting being handcuffed and loaded into a police car on a TV inside the hijacked bus.
Britain’s Foreign Office said two of the hostages who were released were British nationals. Three of the fatalities were Canadian citizens, Philippine police said.
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 wounded in the head, and she will stay in Manila with him until he is able to fly back.
“I thought I would fight for survival so I could take care of my children, but the two of them have already died,” a sobbing Ng said Tuesday.
Bedridden Tracey Wong, 15, told Hong Kong reporters that she hid under a seat on the bus while Mendoza fired at the hostages.
“I want to find daddy and mommy quickly and see if they’re OK,” she said. But Hong Kong’s radio RTHK reported that both her parents were among those killed.
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 with one hand handcuffed to a position near the bus door.
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. ♦
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano, and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila and Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.