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No criminal charges over botched Manila hostage rescue

Aquino sidesteps criminal prosecution for officials after eight Hong Kong hostages died in bus siege, but police chief, mayor and others will be investigated for gross incompetence.

MANILA // Top police and security officials in the Philippines have been spared from criminal prosecution for a bungled hostage rescue in which eight Hong Kong tourists died. 

Instead the country's president, Benigno Aquino, said seven officials would be investigated by the National Police Commission and the Interior Department for administrative lapses including gross incompetence, neglect of duty and misconduct. Possible sanctions include dismissal without pay.

A police officer, Rolando Mendoza, took dozens of Hong Kong tourists hostage on a bus in August to push his demand that he be reinstated after he had been fired. The drama played out for 11 hours at a historic Manila park as millions watched on live TV. Mendoza opened fire at the hostages before police finally broke into the bus and killed him. The bungled rescue damaged ties with China and Hong Kong, which warned against travel to the Philippines, prompting thousands of tourists to cancel bookings. It sparked Mr Aquino's first major crisis, less than two months into his presidency after he was elected on the promise that he would fight corruption and incompetence.

He sought to placate leaders in China and Hong Kong with an investigation he said was conducted with speed and fairness. "I pledged from the very start that there would be accountability," Mr Aquino told reporters today, adding that apart from the administrative action, the government was taking steps to improve the training of security forces. Adopting most of the recommendations of a fact-finding committee led by the justice secretary, Mr Aquino said he was backing the initiation of administrative proceedings against the Manila police chief, Rodolfo Magtibay, police director Leocadio Santiago, and Manila's mayor, Alfredo Lim, as well as two senior police operatives.

Among other lapses, the report blamed Mr Magtibay and Mr Lim for leaving the scene for a restaurant before the hostage-taker started shooting the captives. The police chief allegedly defied Mr Aquino's order to deploy an elite police commando team and instead used local SWAT members, the report said. Mr Magtibay was relieved shortly after the fiasco, while Mr Lim, himself a former Manila police chief, had angrily denied the allegations. It will be up to Mr Aquino to decide what administrative sanctions Mr Lim should face while the cases of the police officers will be left to their superiors.

Although the government panel recommended that Mr Lim and one of Mr Aquino's closest aides, the interior undersecretary, Rico Puno, should be investigated for possible criminal liability stemming from a failure to exercise supervisory powers, the president made no such decision. Mr Aquino chided two radio journalists accused of tying up the hostage-taker's telephone line by interviewing him during the standoff. Their interference bordered on the criminal, Mr Aquino said, but he stopped short of recommending legal action against them.

"We expect this kind of unprofessional behaviour not to be repeated again, or we could be compelled to ask Congress for appropriate regulations to protect the safety of the public, our security forces and media itself," he said.