MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) - A government panel on Friday uncovered a series of errors that could have led to the bloody ending of the August 23 hostage crisis that killed 8 Hong Kong tourists.
A Department of the Interior and Local Government official assigned to supervise the country's police force noted several lapses in the handling of the hostage crisis including: lack of crowd control, lack of control of the media and lack of equipment for the police team assigned to assault the bus held the remaining 15 hostages.
DILG Undersecretary Ric Puno also admitted that he is not trained to handle hostage situations and that he deferred to the heads of the local crisis management committee on how best to handle the hostage situation in Rizal Park.
"I am not capable of handling hostage situations. I am not trained to do that. I do not have the experience to handle hostage situations," Puno told a government panel tasked to investigate the hostage incident.
"When we are looking at the SOP in handling that, it is in the manual that the ground commander and the hostage-negotiator have full responsibility in handling the hostage-taker."
The Incident Investigation and Review Committee on Friday started questioning various government and police officials to shed light on who is responsible for the bloody outcome of the August 23 hostage crisis that left 8 Hong Kong tourists dead.
Among those invited to the hearings were Puno, Philippine National Police (PNP) Director-General Jesus Verzosa, National Capital Region Police Office Chief Leocadio Santiago, Manila Police District head Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno and hostage negotiators, Superintendent Orlando Yebra and Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador.
During the hearing, Puno said the local crisis management committee was formed immediately after the hostage-taking was reported at 10 a.m. of August 23. The CMC was headed by Lim and Moreno, while MPD chief Magtibay was designated as ground commander.
Puno said he was monitoring the hostage-taking in his office before going to Malacañang to brief President Benigno Aquino III about the situation.
He said police officials were confident that the situation would be resolved peacefully since the hostage-taker, dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza, was cooperating with the negotiators and releasing hostages.
Crisis panel wanted to save hostage-taker
Despite the presence of foreigners inside the tour bus, Puno said the local CMC considered the hostage crisis as local in nature since they were confident that the situation would be resolved peacefully.
"We did not consider that but we were already on standby. Instructions were already handed out to the different departments. The National Crisis Committee was on standby at that time if it gets elevated to a national crisis," he said.
"We relied heavily on the assessment of the hostage negotiators and the conduct of the hostage-taker."
Puno said the local CMC coordinated with the Office of the Ombudsman regarding the hostage-taker's demand that extortion charges against him be dropped. He said Malacañang was not informed about the status of the negotiations between the hostage-taker and the Ombudsman, only that a letter from the Ombudsman was given to Mendoza at one point in the negotiations.
It was later learned that the Ombudsman's letter offered Mendoza an immediate review of his case, which angered the hostage-taker.
Puno said the local CMC members, headed by Mayor Lim, were confident that police could save all the hostages including the hostage-taker.
He said this was the reason why police snipers did not fire at Mendoza despite having a clear view of the hostage-taker several times during the crisis.
"The primary purpose of the negotiations was to save everybody including the hostage-taker," he said.
Negotiators, hostage-taker came from MPD
DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, who co-chairs the investigating committee, noted that several issues might have been factored into that decision.
He said the hostage-taker, Mendoza, was a member of the Manila Police District and that the negotiators were also from the same police district. He said some of the SWAT members assigned to storm the bus were likely to be former subordinates of the hostage-taker.
He also noted a lapse in protocol when MPD chief Magtibay was assigned dual roles during the crisis -- that of ground commander of police forces assigned at the hostage scene, and as part of the crisis management committee.
This led to him leaving the hostage scene to attend a crisis management committee meeting at Emerald Restaurant at a critical stage of the negotiations, just before Mendoza started shooting hostages.
Compounding the problem at that point was that Emerald Restaurant did not have a working television, which would show the arrest of Mendoza's brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza.
'Tire him out'
Puno said several options were considered to resolve the situation including reinstating the hostage-taker to the police force. He said the proposal was turned down since it might encourage more hostage-takings.
At one point, he said President Aquino even wanted to go to Rizal Park because he was afraid of the potential aftermath of the crisis. He said the President was prevailed upon not to go since the hostage-taker might escalate the situation even further.
He said he left Malacañang at 6 p.m. to go to Manila Police District headquarters, not knowing that the situation would take a turn for the worse after the hostage-taker's brother was taken into custody by police. The arrest was aired live on nationwide TV and angered the hostage-taker, who was able to watch it via a TV inside the bus.
"Up to that time, before the arrest of the brother, we were very sure. The objective then was to tire him out since all indications showed that he would release most of them. In the first few minutes of the takeover, he let go of 2 hostages who wanted to use the bathroom. There was a bathroom inside the bus but he let them go," he said.
He said Mendoza released several more hostages, 9 in total, before the shooting started.
Puno said that after the arrest of the hostage-taker's brother, NCRPO chief Santiago signed papers ordering the reinstatement of Mendoza to the police force.
He said Mendoza's reinstatement was meant to assuage the hostage-taker after seeing his brother's arrest.
"When I arrived at the WPD, [Santiago] was already signing the paper. 'Kahit na anong mangyari, basta mapakita lang' just to delay and eventually tire him out. That was the attempt," he said.
Attempts to contact Mendoza, however, were in vain because the hostage-taker's cellphone was busy, Puno said. It was later learned that the hostage-taker was being interviewed by a local radio station.
Puno said the police did not consider tapping the media to relay their message to the hostage-taker.
"The ground commander Magtibay was not able to give [the hostage-taker] the reinstatement paper because Mendoza started shooting," he said.
Puno admitted that the option to storm the hijacked bus was considered as early as 2 p.m. when the SWAT started rehearsing how to enter the vehicle. He added that police Special Action Forces and a military Special Operations Group team were at the site, ready to lend support for the operation.
None of these specially armed groups were tapped for the assault on the bus, which started after the hostage-taker started shooting some of the hostages.
Asked if there was anything that could have been improved about the police assault of the bus, Puno said he would have wanted the police SWAT team to have been better trained and better equipped.
"Sana naman maaga namin napag-aralan. Na-train na sana namin yung tao. Na mabigyan ng kagamitan para magawa na nila yung kanilang tungkulin," he said.
He also said he is perfectly willing to take responsibility for any lapses he might have made during the hostage crisis.
"If there are any lapses and I have to take responsibility for all of these things, I will," he said.