Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top-Level Black Travel Alert for the Philippines

by Mynardo Macaraig, AFP
Philippine security forces stormed a bus full of Hong Kong tourists on Monday, August 23 to end a dramatic hostage crisis that unfolded live on global television, leaving at least ten people and the gunman dead.

Hong Kong eventually issued its top-level black travel alert for the Philippines on Monday after Hong Kong tourists were killed in Manila in a bus hijacked by an armed ex-policeman.

The Hong Kong government said it was "very disappointed" about the outcome of a dramatic hostage siege.

The day-long ordeal began when a disgruntled ex-policeman armed with an M-16 assault rifle hijacked the bus in Manila’s tourist district in a desperate bid to get his job back.

Negotiations broke down after nightfall when the gunman, a highly decorated former senior police inspector identified as Rolando Mendoza, began shooting the passengers, and commandos stormed the bus.

Police said Mendoza was shot dead by a sniper after he used his captives as "human shields" in the final moments of the 12-hour standoff.

"I shot two Chinese. I will finish them all if they do not stop," Mendoza told a local radio station as the police assault was about to get underway.

"I can see a lot of special weapons and tactics police (SWAT) coming in. I know they will kill me. They should all leave because anytime I will do the same here."

Ten of the Hong Kong tourists were confirmed killed, according to doctors at hospitals in Manila and the Hong Kong government, although the exact way how they died was not immediately clear.

Seven tourists, including children, and two Filipinos were freed at various times throughout the day from the bus parked at Rizal Park, Manila, a popular tourists destination just a few blocks from police headquarters.

The Filipino bus driver jumped out of a bus window and escaped moments before police stormed the vehicle, with his escape and the rest of the crisis broadcast live on television.

Another four hostages were seen scrambling out of the bus after the siege ended, but the fate of the remaining Hong Kong tourists originally on board the bus remained unknown late on Monday evening.

The Hong Kong government issued its top-level black travel alert for the Philippines after the crisis ended, but said it was sending in two charter planes to Manila for the families of the hostages.

Police were unable to get inside the bus for more than an hour after negotiations broke down and they decided to storm it.

They encircled the bus, smashed its windows and door, and fired at it, but Mendoza held them off by shooting back.

The crisis eventually ended when police threw tear gas inside the bus, and fired again.

"He used the tourists as human shields. But he panicked and retreated to the front of the bus. He was then met with a valley of gunfire," the assault team leader, Superintendent Nelson Yabut told reporters afterwards. "One of our snipers managed to shoot him in the head," he added.

Mendoza, 55, was honoured by police chiefs in 1986 as one of the top 10 officers in the Philippines.

But he was discharged in 2008 for his alleged involvement in drug-related crimes and extortion. He hijacked the bus in a desperate bid to clear his name, according to police.

"He wanted to be reinstated in the service," Manila district police chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay said early in the day.

Joseph Tung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, said the tourists on the bus were aged between four and 72 years.

They were on a three-day tour with Hong Thai Travel and were scheduled to return to Hong Kong late Monday.

"A serious kidnap incident happened in the Philippines. Hong Kong residents should avoid all travel to the country," a Hong Kong government spokesman said in a statement.

"Those who are already there should attend to their personal safety and exercise caution."

Monday’s bus hijack recalled a similar hostage-taking in 2007, when a troubled civil engineer armed with a grenade took over a bus and held 30 children but freed them after a 10-hour standoff with police.

The 2007 drama took place near Manila City Hall, just off Rizal Park.

Monday’s tragedy also added to a fast-growing number of attacks of foreigners in the Philippines.

Gunmen shot dead a South Korean man in a separate attack on Monday morning in another section of Manila. Police said the incidents were not related.

Last month, an American, a South African, a Briton and their Filipina partners were killed in spate of murder-robberies in Angeles City north of Manila. The alleged killer was arrested. /MP

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