MANILA, Philippines — Some victims in a botched hostage rescue of a tourist bus in the Philippines may have been hit by police fire, the nation’s top law enforcement official said Thursday.
Eight tourists from Hong Kong were killed and three seriously wounded after a fired policeman hijacked their bus on Aug. 23 to demand his job back. The hostage-taker was also killed when police stormed the bus after a standoff that dragged on for hours on live television around the world.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said bullet trajectories and the hostages’ wounds indicate that some of the passengers may have been hit by "friendly fire." She did not say, however, whether any of the shots fired by police were fatal and added that investigators will await a complete ballistics report before drawing any final conclusions.
The new details of the investigation emerged as Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said he’s through apologizing for the attack and will focus instead on easing tensions with China and Hong Kong, where officials have criticized the handling of the daylong crisis.
"Let me just say that this incident will not define this administration," Aquino said in a nationally televised news conference. He added that he will wait for a report from a fact-finding committee before he fires any officials for the fiasco.
Aquino, facing his first major test barely two months after taking office, said he will now focus on preventing a repeat of the incident. The public and the media have questioned why the president wasn’t more visible and involved.
"The first thing I will admit is I am not perfect and I can learn," said Aquino, who said he was following the developments from his office. Later, he went to a restaurant near the downtown Manila park where the hostages were held to meet with officials, but he did not want to be "back seat driving" or looking over the shoulders of those handling the crisis, he said.
Aquino said he lost his patience with police commandos and their haphazard assault on the bus. "Every mistake that I saw, I pointed out," he said. "That was perhaps my way of being ‘hands on.’"
He said a police Special Action Force trained for hostage rescue that had held a training exercise earlier that day was not deployed as promised. Instead, a local Manila police SWAT team was used in the assault.
Television footage showed the team was unprepared and took about an hour to break into the bus instead of just seconds, Aquino said.
The Chinese Embassy said in a statement that it expects the Philippines to come up with "a comprehensive and fair report, which tells the truth (and) upholds justice." It said it considers the crisis to be an isolated incident.