MANILA, Philippines – A 12-hour hostage drama aboard a hijacked Philippine bus ended in bloodshed Monday when an angry ex-policeman demanding his job back gunned down eight Hong Kong tourists before police stormed the vehicle and a sniper killed him.
At least seven captives survived, four of whom were seen crawling out the back door of the bus after Philippine police stormed it Monday evening when the hostage-taker started shooting at the 15 Chinese tourists inside, said police Senior Superintendent Nelson Yabut.
He said the hostage-taker was killed with a sniper shot to the head after he wounded a police sharpshooter.
Police and ambulances were lined up next to the vehicle in the pouring rain after the standoff ended. Local hospitals reported seven bodies of hostages were brought in. One other hostage was hospitalized in critical condition, and five others were unharmed.
Two of the surviving hostages were wounded in serious condition and the remaining five are under observation, Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang told reporters in the Chinese territory as he expressed shock and anger at the police response.
The bloodshed rattled the Philippines and raised questions about police ability to deal with hostage-takings.
“How can I be satisfied when there were people who died?” Philippine President Benigno Aquino III told reporters late Monday. But he said the situation deteriorated rapidly from the time the hostage-taker initially showed willingness to release his hostages.
Hong Kong issued a warning against travel to the Philippines and requested that Hong Kong tourists still in the country return. All upcoming tour groups were also canceled.
“I am very saddened by this tragedy. I am angered by the cold-blooded behavior of this murderer,” said Tsang, the Hong Kong leader.
The crisis began when the dismissed policeman, Rolando Mendoza, 55, armed with a M16 rifle seized the busload of Hong Kong tourists to demand his reinstatement in the force.
According to newspaper reports from 2008, he was among five officers who had been charged with robbery, extortion and grave threats after a Manila hotel chef filed a complaint alleging the policemen falsely accused him of using drugs to extort money.
Mendoza released nine hostages during the afternoon — leaving 15 inside. Those freed included two women, three children, a diabetic man and three Filipinos — including a tour guide and a photographer, police said.
Despite hopes that negotiations could bring the stand-off to a peaceful conclusion, tensions escalated as night closed in.
Police said they stormed the bus after they saw Mendoza open fire on hostages. Crouching outside the vehicle, commandos in flak jackets, used a hammer to bash in side windows, the door and windscreen, although it was some time before they eventually gained entry.
Moments before the commandos moved in, the Filipino bus driver fled. Police officer Roderick Mariano cited him as saying Mendoza had opened fire at the tourists.
The Hong Kong tourists had been on a visit to Manila and had been due to fly back to the Chinese territory on Monday, according to tour operator Hong Thai Travel Services Ltd.
Mendoza seized the bus after hitching a ride as it traveled with the tourists from the historic walled city of Intramuros. Police said he then “declared he is taking the passengers hostage” when the bus reached Jose Rizal Park alongside Manila Bay — a downtown area of the sprawling Philippine capital where the U.S. Embassy and a number of hotels are located.
Police sharpshooters took positions around the white-blue-red bus, and the road was sealed off, with ambulances and fire trucks positioned nearby. Police brought in food for the hostages as well as fuel so that the air conditioning unit can keep running as the outside temperature reached about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
The standoff was covered live on television. The curtains on the bus windows were drawn and two police negotiators could be seen walking to and from the bus and communicating with Mendoza from the window near the driver’s seat.
A Chinese diplomat had appealed for restraint on the part of the Philippine authorities and not to jeopardize the hostages safety.
Bai Tian, deputy mission chief at the Chinese Embassy who was monitoring the negotiations, said the hostages were “calm and peaceful.” Speaking to reporters in the afternoon, he said they wanted every step taken “to secure the safety and security of our Chinese nationals.”
Mendoza’s younger brother, Gregorio, also a policeman, said that his brother felt that “injustice was done on him” when he had been fired from his job.
“He was disappointed that he did well in police service but was dismissed for a crime he did not do,” he said.
Apart from demanding his reinstatement, Mendoza had also wanted to talk to the Philippine media and asked that his son — also a policeman — be brought to him. He scribbled some of his demands on paper and plastered it on the bus windows and a windshield.
A representative from the ombudsman’s office talked to Mendoza on the phone and had promised to look into his case again, Mendoza’s brother, Florencio, told reporters. Another brother of Mendoza also helped police in the negotiations, Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay said.
Law enforcement is weak in the Philippines, and hostage-takings for ransom are not uncommon.
In March 2007, not far from the scene of Monday’s hostage-taking, a man took a busload of children and teachers hostage from his day-care center in Manila to denounce corruption. They were freed after a 10-hour standoff.