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Friendly fire suspected in Manila deaths

Philippine investigators admitted for the first time Thursday that police may have shot some of the tourists in a bungled operation that left eight Hong Kong residents dead on a bus in Manila.


President Benigno Aquino said he expected to get the investigators’ final report into the hostage incident on September 15, and pledged to fire officials found to have failed in their duties or file criminal charges against them.

“Our government is now focused on taking the necessary steps to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again,” he said in a live interview on national television.

“Let me just say that this incident will not define this administration.”

Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took a busload of tourists hostage on August 23 in a desperate bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his old job back.

Eight of the tourists were killed and seven others wounded in the central Manila standoff.

Police initially insisted the bullets that killed the tourists were all fired from the guns of Mendoza, who the bus driver said moved down the aisle and systematically shot the victims one by one as he reached their seats.

But Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday post-mortem examination of dead suggested otherwise.

“The (police investigators) say if they were shot at that (point-blank) distance the wounds should have been more severe and there should have been more blood spatters, because this is a rifle,” de Lima said.

The wounds however did not exhibit burn marks caused by the muzzle of a gun fired close by, suggesting the bullets were fired from a distance, she told reporters.

Ballistics experts also concluded some of the bullets that hit the bus were fired from a distance further than the location of the police snipers, she said.

Asked whether at least some of the victims could have been killed by “friendly fire,” de Lima said: “We are not focusing (on that), but we should never miss that. Otherwise our report will be less than thorough.”

The police hostage crisis team had said other bullets were fired into the bus by police snipers and an assault unit but they did not lead to fatalities.

“What is crucial, occupying our minds, is if the shots were made at close range, (these) are not consistent with forensic findings,” De Lima said.

This raised the possibility that other units deployed in the area could have fired into the bus, she added.

“Where did the shots come from, the hostage-taker, the assault team, or other teams? We doubt they all came from snipers and assault teams,” said de Lima.

The panel has asked the Hong Kong police to help with the ballistics aspect of the inquiry, she added.

De Lima said she also ordered the guns of all police units deployed in the area during the crisis, including those who were not part of the assault team, be test-fired.

Aquino has taken responsibility for the fiasco that has chilled ties with Hong Kong and damaged the Philippine tourism industry.

He vowed Thursday to form an elite force based on Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) to deal with similar hostage incidents in the future.

Aquino said de Lima’s report would serve as the basis for dealing with police and government officials who handled the bus hostage crisis. This could include possible criminal cases, he added.

The president said he had asked the former Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay, who went on leave amid criticism of his role as ground commander during the hostage crisis, to retire from the service.

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