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Philippine leader vows penalty for bus crisis

Says officials must be accountable

By Oliver Teves
Associated Press / August 27, 2010

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MANILA — The Philippine president vowed yesterday to punish authorities who bungled a bus hostage crisis that killed eight tourists from Hong Kong, toughening his stance after China expressed outrage and political rivals pummeled him with criticism.

The nearly 12-hour hostage drama Monday at a historic Manila park stunned even this violence-prone Southeast Asian nation and delivered the first major crisis to President Benigno S. Aquino III less than two months into his six-year term.

Also yesterday, the Philippine Senate began an inquiry into the hostage fiasco.

“Someone failed. Someone will pay,’’ Aquino said during a speech at a suburban university. He called the carnage “ghastly’’ and admitted there were “many failures.’’

It was his strongest statement since a predawn news conference hours after the crisis when he told reporters, who asked if some police officials will be fired, that “it’s unfair to prejudge them.’’

“My opinion might sway the [investigating] panel and hamper their efforts of ferreting out the truth,’’ he said then.

China’s Foreign Ministry pressed Manila to complete the investigation as soon as possible.

Philippine officials have acknowledged an economic backlash after Hong Kong authorities urged the region’s citizens not to travel to the country.

About 140,000 tourists from Hong Kong visit the Philippines yearly. National carrier Philippine Airlines said in a statement that at least 558 tourists from Hong Kong and China have canceled their bookings.

Concerns also were raised about the safety of more than 100,000 Filipinos working in Hong Kong, mostly as maids, who contributed to the $17.3 billion sent home in 2009 by about 9 million overseas Filipinos — remittances that help keep the economy afloat.

In 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 that followed a breakdown in the negotiations with the hostage-taker, former police officer Rolando Mendoza.

Mendoza, 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 dispatched him.

“I must admit that they bungled the situation. They could have done better,’’ Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, told the senators.

The leader of the Philippines opposition, Representative Edcel C. Lagman, called for the resignation of Robredo and the leaders of the president’s communications group, saying the Aquino government “failed miserably’’ in handling the crisis.

He said the crisis “demanded decisive and forthright presidential action, but the president was nowhere to be found.’’

In Hong Kong, business was halted in the bustling Asian financial center yesterday morning for a three-minute tribute to the slain tourists.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang and hundreds of citizens bowed their heads as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised and then lowered to half-staff in a downtown square.

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