MANILA (Updated 7:21 a.m.) -- A police chief and four officers of a special assault team were relieved from their posts on Wednesday after Monday's hostage crisis ended in a bloodbath.
The relief came on a national day of mourning to remember the victims of Monday’s ordeal, which left eight tourists -- five Kong Kong nationals and three Canadians -- dead after an ex-policeman hijacked a Hong Thai Travel bus and held its 25 passengers hostage.
Manila Police Director Rodolfo Magtibay, who handled the botched rescue operation and ordered the assault, offered to go on leave and distance himself pending full investigation of the bloody hostage crisis.
President Benigno Aquino III directed General Jesus Verzosa to accept Magtibay's offer of leave.
However, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) Director Leocadio Santiago said Thursday morning in a radio report that after Magtibay's leave, Verzosa will continue to relieve him from his post.
Santiago named Senior Superintendent Francisco Villaroman, deputy director of the Directorate for Integrated Police Operations-Eastern Mindanao, as Magtibay’s replacement starting Thursday.
“Likewise four personnel of the Manila Police District’s Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) were administratively relieved pending results of the probe,” said Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Agrimero Cruz Jr.
Those relieved were Chief Inspector Santiago Pascual, Senior Police Officer (SPO) 4 Reynaldo Antonio, SPO3 Alfonso Gameng, and SPO2 Bernardo Espinosa.
Cruz said the four officers who were part of the 200-man assault team will have to surrender their firearms for some ballistic tests.
He said they were suspended to prevent them from exerting “undue influence” on the investigation.
The police earlier admitted that there have been lapses in handling the crisis, including the poor negotiation with hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, inadequate equipment for the Swat team, bad crowd control, and allowing the media to roam around the hostage site, which sparked calls from lawmakers to enforce news blackouts after media outfits detailed the police’s assault plan and movements.
The tragedy unfolded live on television, allowing people around the world to watch as the assault team failed to get into the bus for more than an hour after smashing its windows with sledgehammers.
Police also said that according to the autopsy report, all hostage victims succumbed from gunshot wounds but did not categorically disclose what kind of firearms killed them.
Cruz said at least 59 empty shells from Mendoza’s M-16 assault rifle and 31 from his two small firearms were recovered inside the bus.
Autopsies on five of the victims showed they died from gunshots mostly in the head and neck.
The President also ordered a government inquiry on top of the internal police probe, and promised to fully inform the Hong Kong authorities of the results.
“The autopsy was conducted on all fatalities but three of them begged for some personal considerations," said Cruz. The three bodies that were not subjected to autopsy are Hong Kong nationals.
The report furnished to media said three victims sustained gunshot wounds in the head, while the others were shot on the neck and other parts of the body.
Police investigators also found 65 pieces of 5.56-millimeter fired cartridge case, two pieces of caliber 45 fired cartridge case, one piece of nine-millimeter fired cartridge case and one piece of 5.56-millimeter live ammunition.
“The 59 shells are from Mendoza’s M-16 rifle,” said Cruz.
The bodies of the victims were transported back to Hong Kong via a Cathay Pacific chartered flight past 6 p.m. Wednesday.
The caskets of the dead were brought onto the airport tarmac one by one as Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang stood at attention with other officials, including a Chinese military official.
With bagpipes playing in the background, Tang laid a white wreath on each of the coffins before they were towed away.
"We spent these past three days with heavy hearts and sorrow. Tonight we can finally welcome back to Hong Kong the remains of the victims and our compatriots who have suffered tremendously," Tang said after the arrival ceremony.
The solemn homecoming almost resembled a reception for the war dead — because it was the equivalent for this politically-stable and affluent center of high finance where violent crime is rare.
Hong Kong Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee said Wednesday that Hong Kong police may launch their own investigation now that the eight bodies are in their custody.
While Filipino authorities have conducted autopsies on five of the victims, relatives of the other three have refused to let the bodies be examined.
Hong Kong legislator Lau Kong-Wah wants Hong Kong police to take part in the Philippine investigation.
"If the results aren't accepted by the Hong Kong people, it will only aggravate the tension," Lau said. (Virgil Lopez/AP/Sunnex)