Philippines investigators admitted for the first time that police might have shot some of the tourists in a bungled hostage rescue operation that left eight Hong Kong residents dead on a bus in central Manila. President Benigno Aquino said he expects to receive the investigators' final report into the incident on September 15, and pledged to fire officials found to have failed in their duties, or file criminal charges against them. "Our government is now focused on taking the necessary steps to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again," he said in a live interview on national television today. "Let me just say that this incident will not define this administration." Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took a bus-load of tourists hostage on August 23 in a bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his job back. Eight of the tourists were killed and seven others were injured in the stand-off. Police initially insisted the bullets that killed the tourists were all fired from Mendoza's guns. Other bullets were fired into the bus by police snipers and an assault unit but they didn't lead to fatalities, they had said. However, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said today: "There is a big possibility that there (was) friendly fire." Ms De Lima, head of an official inquiry, said the forensic reports on some of the murdered victims did not match the account of the bus driver, who had told investigators the gunman shot the tourists at close range. "What is crucial, occupying our minds, is if the shots were made at close range, (these) are not consistent with forensic findings," she said.
The entry points of these wounds did not exhibit burn marks caused by the muzzle of a gun that was fired close by, she said. Asked whether some of the victims could have been killed by "friendly fire," Ms de Lima said: "We are not focusing (on that), but we should never miss that. Otherwise our report will be less than thorough." The investigating panel has asked the Hong Kong police to help with the ballistics aspect of the investigation, she said. "Where did the shots come from, the hostage-taker, the assault team, or other teams? We doubt they all came from snipers and assault teams." Ballistics experts say some of the bullets that hit the bus were fired from a distance farther than the location of the snipers, raising the possibility that other units deployed in the area could have fired into the bus, she said. Mr Aquino has taken responsibility for the fiasco that has chilled ties with Hong Kong and damaged the Philippines tourism industry. He also vowed to form an elite force, based on UK's Special Air Service to deal with similar hostage incidents in the future. "We will copy to a degree the formation of that national unit," which would be made up of between 200 and 400 soldiers and police capable of responding to any threat in any part of the country, he said. Mr Aquino said Ms De Lima's report will serve as the basis for dealing with police and government officials who handled the hostage crisis. This could include possible criminal cases, he said. The president said he has asked the former Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay, who went on leave amid criticism of his role as ground commander during the crisis, to file for an early retirement. * AFP