Philippines calls for charges over hijacking fiasco

09/20/2010 - MANILA — Philippine President Benigno Aquino said on Monday that a fact-finding panel has recommended charges against top officials for a tourist bus hijacking fiasco that left eight Hong Kong hostages dead.

He said a former national police chief and other senior police officials, an undersecretary of the interior, the Manila mayor and two broadcasters were among a dozen people who could face charges following the report.

Parts of the findings published online offered a scathing indictment of the Philippine police response to the hijacking, accusing the force of negligence, insubordination and failing to gather intelligence as the crisis unfolded.

"We are committed to implementing the necessary changes to upgrade the capabilities of our local government units, police and security forces, to ensure the safety of the public," Aquino told a news conference.

Speaking several hours before leaving for a working visit to the United States, Aquino said investigators had recommended criminal or civil charges against 12 people.

But he said he had ordered his legal advisers to determine what charges could be filed, to ensure the cases would stand up in court.

"I want to emphasise that I do not want to make decisions regarding such important matters without a thorough review. I will study their findings upon my return, and decide accordingly," he added.

Sacked police officer Rolando Mendoza seized a busload of tourists in central Manila on August 23 in a desperate attempt to get his job back and get himself cleared on extortion charges.

Police eventually shot Mendoza dead, but not until after he had killed eight hostages and wounded seven more as the drama played out on live television around the world.

The investigating panel which compiled the report -- headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima -- recommended charges be filed against former national police chief Jesus Verzosa, Aquino said. Verzosa has retired from the force since the incident.

Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, who ran the attempted rescue, is also recommended for charges, Aquino said, as are more police officers. Magtibay is currently on leave.

Also facing possible charges are Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and his Vice Mayor Francisco Moreno, government Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and her deputy, along with two prominent broadcasters, Aquino said.

He also faulted "three networks" who Secretary de Lima later said referred to the country's three biggest television networks who all covered the hostage crisis live, possibly giving information to the hostage-taker.

Aquino said the broadcasters had hampered the operation by interviewing the hijacker via his mobile phone, preventing government negotiators from contacting him.

The three largest television networks in the Philippines are ABS-CBN, GMA and ABC.

Extracts from the report, posted on a government website, repeatedly blamed the "incompetence" and "negligence" of the officials who handled negotiations with the hostage-taker and the police assault after he began shooting.

It also cited "insubordination" by the top police officials, who opted not to follow Aquino's orders to use the best police commando team to carry out the rescue.

"Intelligence gathering... was virtually nil," the report said, adding that police had made no effort to find out how to get into the bus where the tourists were being held.

De Lima later said the legal review might find more people who could be charged.

Police have already admitted failures including missing several opportunities to shoot the hijacker.

De Lima said last week that the investigators concluded all eight tourists had been shot by Mendoza, despite earlier suggestions police bullets could have hit some of the victims.

The incident had enraged Chinese and Hong Kong officials who demanded a full explanation.

The president said that a copy of the report had already been sent to the Chinese embassy but that he had not yet received any response.

Aquino said he hoped the release of the report would satisfy the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and improve diplomatic relations.

"We have responded completely and fully to all the requests they have delivered to us," he said.

He has pledged to send a high-level delegation to Hong Kong, where he will try to assuage fury in a city with a 200,000-strong Philippine community. (Google news)

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