Coffin mix-up discovered after Philippine hostage crisis

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 02 2010 12:40 PM | Updated as of Sep 03 2010 01:48 AM

HONG KONG (UPDATE) - Three coffins used to bring back some of the eight Hong Kong tourists killed last week's Philippine hostage crisis had been mislabelled, a Hong Kong government spokesman said Thursday.

The mix-up was discovered after the family of one victim went to a Hong Kong mortuary to identify their dead relative only to find the coffin contained the body of another victim of last week's hijacking.

A senior Hong Kong official and weeping relatives had laid wreaths on the mislabelled coffins at a sombre airport ceremony in Hong Kong last week.

"Three of the coffins were wrongly labelled," a government spokesman told AFP. "When the bodies were at the mortuary in Hong Kong, the error was discovered."

The blunder was made at a Manila funeral parlour before the bodies were flown to Hong Kong, the spokesman said, most likely when the victims were transferred from plain coffins to more elaborate caskets.

Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who is heading the hostage incident probe, said she was unaware of any mislabelling.

"There is no such indication in the reports that we received so far, but we can always verify that and that can be part (of the ongoing investigation)," she said, adding that "it has to be a really thorough and comprehensive investigation."

Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the victims' bodies were correctly labelled before they left for the funeral parlour, but could not verify if the coffins had been properly tagged.

"They were identified in the hospitals by the travel agency and the family members," Pang said.

"The family members claimed (the bodies) in the hospitals and then they were sent out for post-mortem care."

The hostage ordeal on August 23 began when sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza hijacked a bus with 22 Hong Kong tourists and three Filipinos on board in the heart of Manila.

The day-long drama was played out on television screens around the world and ended in a botched rescue attempt riddled with police errors.

The deaths of Hong Kong tourists killed in the incident triggered public outrage over the mishandling of the crisis and investigations into whether the hostages were killed by Mendoza or by police weapons.

The Philippine government has admitted to making a number of errors in its handling of the crisis, which has chilled diplomatic ties with Hong Kong and damaged the southeast Asian nation's tourism industry.