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Philippines Says Police Bullets May Have Hit Hostages

Gunfire from police may have killed some Hong Kong tourists in a Manila bus hijack last month, lead investigator Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said.

A former Philippine police inspector seized the tour bus on Aug. 23, leading to a 12-hour standoff that ended with eight of the visitors killed and the gunman fatally shot by a police sniper. Some bullet wounds on victims’ bodies appear smaller than what would have been inflicted by an M16 rifle the hijacker was believed to have used, De Lima said in Manila today.

“There is always a possibility that some may have been killed by friendly fire,” De Lima said at a briefing. Investigators must determine the source of the gunfire that killed and injured the victims, she said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila said it expects the Philippines to produce a “comprehensive and fair report” after its probe. President Benigno Aquino said he is communicating with Chinese authorities after receiving what he called an “insulting” letter from Hong Kong’s government.

“We were told in very minute detail what we were supposed to do,” Aquino said at a separate briefing in Manila, declining to specify who signed the letter. “We are not responding to the official letter from the Hong Kong government that, in my view, is insulting.”

Hong Kong’s government has no immediate response to the Philippine officials’ comments, and Chief Executive Donald Tsang may wait until the official investigation report is released, Andy Ho, his spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Full Responsibility

Aquino reiterated that he takes full responsibility for the outcome of the attack.

The siege led Hong Kong to raise its outbound alert for the Philippines to the most severe level and advise residents to “avoid all travel” there. Tsang criticized the handling of the attack and said he rang Aquino unsuccessfully that day. Tsang’s calls were unexpected and the government needed to confirm the person’s identity before responding, Aquino said today.

De Lima didn’t say when she expected the probe to end. She has conducted five hearings on the attack, questioning police officers, national and local officials and journalists who spoke to the hijacker.

Philippine Tourism Minister Alberto Lim said Aug. 24 that the mishandling of the situation by police caused the deadliest attack on visitors in Philippine history.

Aquino said his mistake was in continuing to trust police officials who assured him that a special action force would carry out any assault, even after discovering that a team hadn’t been sent to the site. Metro-Manila’s police chief should have led the operation instead of the municipal head.

“Perhaps I should have taken a more active role” in ensuring the special task force was there, Aquino said. The president said he hasn’t fired any officials because he is waiting for the outcome of the investigation.

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