President Benigno Aquino on Friday began studying a report that called for charges to be laid against those behind the bungled Philippine bus hostage rescue that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
The fiasco has cast a shadow over Aquino’s fledgling presidency, led to allegations of official incompetence and sparked an angry backlash in Hong Kong, one of the Philippines’ key tourist markets. “I have read the report halfway,” Aquino told a group of businessmen at a lunch meeting. He met investigators led by Justice Department Secretary Leila de Lima later in the day, but presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino would not immediately comment on the report. The government will brief the press on Monday about the next steps to be taken, Lacierda said. Sacked Manila policeman Rolando Mendoza, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, hijacked the bus full of Hong Kong tourists on August 23 in a desperate bid to get his job back and clear his name of extortion charges. Police have admitted missing repeated chances to take out the hostage-taker and to key officials leaving their posts during the day-long crisis, which ended in a botched rescue bid broadcast live on television around the world. Mendoza was killed by police, who took nearly an hour to break into the hijacked vehicle. De Lima told reporters her panel’s report held more than a dozen people culpable, including police officers, government officials and journalists. It also concluded that the eight Hong Kong tourists were all shot by the lone hostage-taker, de Lima added. Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a member of the investigative panel, said the most difficult part of their task was assigning blame. “It’s a relief to all of us that the fact-finding investigation is over. It took us more than two weeks to complete the report and this was not an easy task as we had to investigate our colleagues in government,” Robredo said. Hong Kong police experts helped the Philippines in its inquiry, including hearing testimony from Hong Kong tourists who survived the hostage-taking and helping identify the guns that fired the fatal bullets. Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang said the incident had “left a very deep wound in the community” and that the report’s conclusions would be carefully examined. “Our intention is we must get to the bottom of this and we must account for it to the Hong Kong people, and particularly to those who died, the families who have suffered a loss and those who are seriously injured,” he told reporters late Friday. “And we will scrutinise the outcome of this investigation, particularly the conclusions which the Philippine authorities will make on this matter.” Aquino has pledged to send a high-level delegation to Hong Kong, where he will try to head off a backlash in a city with a 200,000-strong Philippine community. Accused by the opposition of failing to show leadership during the crisis, he has repeatedly made clear his determination to ensure that the incident will not define his six-year presidency. He won a landslide election in May and enjoyed sky-high popularity ratings at the beginning of his term. Aquino has vowed to improve the capability of the security forces, now tied down by communist and Muslim separatist insurgencies as well as hampered by small budgets, to deal with similar situations in the future.