Security experts baffled over Manila hostage drama

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 24 2010 06:31 PM | Updated as of Aug 25 2010 08:49 AM

SINGAPORE - Security experts Tuesday were baffled and angered by the Philippines' handling of a hostage crisis in which a lone gunman was able to monitor ill-coordinated police operations live on television.

Rolando Mendoza, 55, a sacked police officer demanding to be cleared of corruption charges, was finally felled by a sniper's bullet after chaotic scenes among security forces outside a tour bus he had commandeered.

Eight tourists from Hong Kong lay dead or were fatally shot by the time the police seized control of the bus after a 12-hour standoff on Monday, during which the hostage taker also spoke by mobile phone with local radio stations.

"The fact that there was essentially live video was mistake number one," said assistant professor John Harrison, a homeland security analyst at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

He told Agence France-Presse there should have been a media blackout to deny the hijacker feedback on what was going on around him.

Instead, he was able to follow events -- including frenzied speculation by serving and former police chiefs appearing on Philippine networks -- via the bus's internal TV.

President Benigno Aquino, who took his oath of office on June 30 at the historic Rizal Park grandstand complex where the incident unfolded, has defended the police but ordered an investigation.

Hong Kong newspapers bemoaned missed opportunities by police to end the siege much earlier, including a moment when the gunman waved from the bus door. Protestors Tuesday picketed the Chinese territory's Philippine consulate.

Dennis Wong Sing Wing, an associate professor of applied social studies at City University in Hong Kong, said the police operation was "really shocking" to watch as it unfolded live on TV.

"I am very angry about their unprofessional performance," he said. "They are indirectly responsible for the deaths of the Hong Kong people."

Wong said the policemen assigned to end the hostage-taking appeared to lack modern weapons and communication equipment, and as a result were hesitant to attack the gunman, who was armed with an M-16 assault rifle.

He criticized the negotiating tactics employed by police, saying they failed to calm the hostage-taker down and hear him out.

A retired Philippine military official who wrote a counter-terrorism manual and now runs a security consultancy said the police had enough expertise and equipment to deal with such an incident, but they were not put to use.

"We have everything, except the execution was poorly done," he said, declining to be named.

He was critical of the stop-go negotiations and "tentative" assault launched after gunshots rang out from inside the bus, adding that the police should have disabled the TV monitor early on.

"Contact (by negotiators) should have been constant. It's the talking that does a lot," he said.

"When you order an assault, it has to be an assault. There is no such thing as a tentative assault," he said. "If 10 policemen have to die, they have to die in that assault."

The retired official believed many of the policemen on the scene, some of them seen crouching without any body armor behind patrol cars, did not appear to be fully trained Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) personnel.

"They just put helmets on certain people," he remarked.

Trial judge Jaime Santiago, a former SWAT officer, said in a television interview in Manila that police failed to impose crowd control in the hostage site and panicked after hearing gunshots from the bus.

"They should have put a tactical force, SWAT snipers and an assault team on standby during the negotiation so that if the hostage-taker started harming people, they would act," Santiago added.