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Manila Hostage-Taking Incident:What Do the Professionals Say

The following comments of President Benigno Aquino, the Manila Police Commander and some non-governmental security experts on the way the Manila Police handled the hostage-taking crisis on August 23,2010, have been extracted from despatches of the Agence France Press (AFP) :

President Aquino: The tragedy highlighted many flaws in the ability of Philippine security forces to handle hostage situations. “There are a lot of things (that) resulted in a tragedy. Obviously we should be improving.” One of the problems was the way the crisis played out through the media, with the gunman being allowed to speak on radio and watch events live on the bus’s television, giving him insights into police actions. Waiting more than 10 hours before storming the bus was the right course of action, because police believed until that point they could convince the gunman to stand down. Mr.Leocadio Santiago, Manila Police Commander: “We saw some obvious shortcomings in terms of capability and tactics used, or the procedure employed and we are now going to investigate this.” Mr.John Harrison, Assistant Professor and homeland security analyst at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore:”The fact that there was essentially live video was mistake number one.” There should have been a media blackout to deny the hijacker feedback on what was going on around him. Instead, he was able to follow events — including frenzied speculation by serving and former police chiefs appearing on Philippine networks — via the bus’ internal TV. Mr.Dennis Wong Sing Wing, an Associate Professor of applied social studies at the City University in Hong Kong:The police operation was “really shocking” to watch as it unfolded live on TV. “I am very angry about their unprofessional performance.They are indirectly responsible for the deaths of the Hong Kong people.” The policemen assigned to end the hostage-taking appeared to lack modern weapons and communication equipment, and as a result were hesitant to attack the gunman, who was armed with an M-16 assault rifle. The Police failed to calm the hostage-taker down and hear him out. An unnamed retired Philippine military official who wrote a counter-terrorism manual and now runs a security consultancy:The police had enough expertise and equipment to deal with such an incident, but they were not put to use. “We have everything, except the execution was poorly done.” He was critical of the stop-go negotiations and “tentative” assault launched after gunshots rang out from inside the bus, adding that the police should have disabled the TV monitor early on.”Contact (by negotiators) should have been constant. It’s the talking that does a lot.When you order an assault, it has to be an assault. There is no such thing as a tentative assault.If 10 policemen have to die, they have to die in that assault.” Many of the policemen on the scene, some of them seen crouching without any body armour behind patrol cars, did not appear to be fully trained Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) personnel. “They just put helmets on certain people.”

Trial judge Jaime Santiago, a former SWAT officer:The police failed to impose crowd control in the hostage site and panicked after hearing gunshots from the bus. “They should have put a tactical force, SWAT snipers and an assault team on standby during the negotiation so that if the hostage-taker started harming people, they would act.”

Mr.Lionel de Souza, a former officer of Singapore’s Criminal Investigation Department, recalled a similar hijacking of a bus in Singapore. “I think that was in 1978 in Seng Poh Road in Tiong Bahru. The police were chasing some robbers and they jumped onto an SBS bus which was (carrying) passengers. (The robbers) sort of held them hostage. At that time, hostage negotiation was not well known. Nevertheless, the retired assistant commissioner – Tan Kah Wan – I think he did a good job. There was no loss of lives but there was the arrest of the hostage takers.” In the Manila hostage tragedy, one image that left many doubting was the action of armed police who had crept up around the bus.”They started smashing the windows with the sledgehammer, trying to wrench open the door with a rope. That by itself is a provocation to the criminal, and because he is already agitated, adding more pressure to his already troubled mind would entail him to sort of do things that a person with a proper frame of mind would not do. He may be a decorated police officer, he may know the law, but these tensions were building within him.” Negotiations could have gone on longer as it was important to wear down the hijacker in such a crisis. Singapore is well-poised to handle a similar crisis, with hostage negotiators being well-trained.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt, of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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