MANILA : Philippine officials managing a hostage crisis left their posts to fill up on coffee and food as a gunman who had seized a busload of Hong Kong tourists began shooting, an inquiry heard Saturday.
Manila deputy mayor Isko Moreno told a public hearing he went to a nearby hotel to watch the crisis that left eight hostages dead play out on television while mayor Alfredo Lim had admitted Friday heading to a nearby restaurant.
The testimony by Moreno on Saturday came after details emerged of a catalogue of mistakes by other police and government officials in the central Manila standoff.
Moreno and Lim said they left the crisis command post that was within walking distance of the bus at dusk, soon after the hostage-taker rejected a compromise deal and fired a warning shot.
"What was I supposed to do, go meet the bullets?" Moreno retorted at the hearing called by an inquiry board set up by President Benigno Aquino to investigate the fiasco.
Sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took the busload of tourists hostage on August 23 in a desperate bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his old job back.
The standoff, which played out live on global television, came to a bloody end when police stormed the bus in a botched attempt to rescue the hostages. A police sniper without night-vision goggles eventually shot dead the gunman.
Moreno said he felt frustrated the city government's failure to bring a peaceful end to the day-long crisis.
He drove to a nearby hotel to have coffee alone, and asked the waiter to switch from a sports channel so he could watch the police rescue operation live.
Lim and Moreno were the chairman and vice chairman respectively of a local "crisis management committee" assigned to resolve the crisis.
Lim, a retired Manila police chief, gave evidence to the board on Friday, saying he went to a restaurant nearby after the gunman fired a warning shot at the negotiators.
Lim said he believed the crisis would drag on all night and that he needed to eat as he'd had no food since the crisis began in mid-morning.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, the head of the inquiry, told Moreno Saturday she felt the top two city officials had left the decision-making to the local police in the crucial last hour before the assault on the bus.
"During the critical moments we learned that Mayor Lim went to (the restaurant) and you went to (the hotel)," de Lima added.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a member of the inquiry board, echoed de Lima's observations.
"It seemed as though you entrusted the police with full responsibility for the situation," he told the vice mayor.
The police commander of Metropolitan Manila, Leocadio Santiago, said Saturday he saw the police ground commander, Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, with Lim at the restaurant when Magtibay ordered the assault.
"Since the mayor and task group commander were in one place I did not see a lapse," testified Santiago.
On Friday the inquiry was told the country's police chief left Manila halfway through the standoff and the force's best-trained unit sat out the bungled assault on the bus.
Other police and official witnesses also testified that they missed repeated chances to shoot the hostage-taker because they believed they could negotiate an end to the crisis without bloodshed.
[An experienced hostage negotiator had described a hostage situation as a murder in progress. He also said that he entered in such negotiation with the mindset that the hostages were all potential murder victims. And that any hostage he could save was a success. With such a perspective, the hostage-taker should have been neutralised at the first opportunity. Negotiation is intended to rescue hostages, not "save" the hostage-taker. The best trained team was benched probably because the police thought that they could "deal with their own". In this case, there is a conflict of interest and the police handling the situation may have had personal dealings or indirect ties with the hostage-taker. Obviously this was unprofessional and ultimately dangerous to the hostages. Of course he would have wanted to speak to people he knew or trusted and such personnel could be roped in for the crisis, but operational command and decision should have been given to an impartial and professional unit who would deal with the situation as it should be dealt with, and not because they wrongly wanted to save their own. In a sense, the inability to see conflict of interest is part of the corrupt mindset. When you are used to thinking, "hey lets go apply for XXX at this place and at this time because my relative is on duty there and he can help us" you tend not to realise that leveraging on such "connections" or "guanxi" is unprofessional and corrupt and view it simply as "cutting red tape" or expediency.]
Inspector Romeo Salvador, one of two police negotiators, told the inquiry on Saturday that discussions with the gunman broke down because other people got in the way of their work. However he said he did not know who these people were.
"In my personal opinion other people interfered," said Salvador.
The negotiator said a superior had overruled his suggestion that he try to grab and overpower the gunman.
President Aquino said Friday he took responsibility for the tragedy, which has damaged ties with Hong Kong and hurt the country's tourism industry.
- AFP /ls