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Munich-1972; Mumbai-26/11 and Manila-23/8

The facts of the tragedy in Manila on August 23,2010, which led to the death of eight tourists from Hong Kong due to the irrational behaviour of a dismissed Manila police officer as reported by the Agence France Presse (AFP) are as follows: Eight Hong Kong tourists were killed when police stormed a bus that had been commandeered 12 hours earlier by a disgraced ex-police officer demanding he get his job back. Seven other Hong Kong tourists were injured. One of them is still in a critical condition more than 12 hours after the bloody rescue attempt while the others sustained only slight injuries.The ordeal began when the suspect, armed with an M-16 assault rifle and dressed in combat pants, hijacked the bus with 25 people aboard in Manila’s tourist district. He later freed seven Hong Kong tourists and two Filipinos. But negotiations broke down after nightfall when the gunman, former senior police inspector Rolando Mendoza, began shooting and commandos were forced to storm the bus, firing dozens of bullets of their own into the vehicle. The Filipino driver escaped just before the shooting.

2. The incident was telecast live by many TV channels of the world. We were thus able to see what was happening.Certain important points about the incident need to be underlined:

First, it was not an act of terrorism. It was a criminal act committed by a recently dismissed police officer who had been rendered irrational by the dismissal. He was acting alone.

Second, his grievances were purely personal. He just wanted his job back.

Third, he took his victims hostage in a bus which was halted in the middle of the road.He was in a position to see all that was happening around the bus through the bus windows. As a result, the advantage of stealth in operational planning and execution was denied to the police. A similar thing happened during the Munich massacre of 1972 by some Palestinian terrorists and during the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai. In Munich and Mumbai, the live telecasting of the security movements by TV channels enabled the hostage-takers to see what the police and other security agencies were doing. In Manila, his location inside a bus enabled the hostage-taker to see what was happening around him. The most important requisite in an operation against hostage-taking is operational stealth. This requirement was denied to the police and other security agencies in Munich, Mumbai and Manila by circumstances beyond their control.As a result, all these three incidents resulted in tragedies of various proportions.

Four, the fact that the hostage-taker was writing out his demands on pieces of paper and pasting them on the windows for the police outside to read indicates that the communication set of the bus driver with his control station or the mobile hand-sets of the police and the hostage-taker were not being used throghout the incident. It is not known why. When the negotiators communicate with a hostage-taker orally it has a better impact than when they communicate with written notes. Persuasion is possible. It was reported that the brother of the hostage-taker and other relatives did try to persuade him—-unsuccessfully— to surrender. One does not know how they did so— orally throgh mobile handsets or in writing.

Five, it has been reported that as a result of the negotiations, the hostage-taker did release nine passengers because of their age and health. This might have enabled the police to make a forcible entry into the bus by taking advantage of the opening of the door to allow these persons come out. Why they could not use this opportunity? It is not clear.

Six, the bus was so air tight that the police had difficulty in making an opening through a sledge-hammer. After plane hijackings started, aircraft are so designed as to enable forcible and stealth entry by the special intervention forces. Buses are not so designed.The police have no way of making a forcible entry except by breaking the glasses in the full view of the hostage-taker.

Seven, the police apparently prolonged the negotiations till nighfall hoping this would make some stealth movement possible. But, unforunately, the bus under the control of the hostage-taker was in a brightly-lit area of Manila and the police had not got the electricity to that area switched off before launching their attack on the bus.

Eight, a basic principle in dealing with hostage-taking situations is, do not concede the demand of the hostage-taker. This could create more such incidents. In this case, some flexibility in the adherence to this principle was called for. The police could have tactically conceded the demand of the hostage-taker by agreeing to reinstate him and then sacked him again after he had released the passengers. A rigid adherence to the principle was unwise. Why the police did not consider this alternative?

3. The Filipino authorities would be making a detailed enquiry into the deficiencies, if any, in the handling of the situation and drawing lessons for the future. To prevent such incidents during the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the Government of India should immediately send a joint team consisting of senior officers of the Intelligence Bureau, the Research & Analysis Wing, the National Security Guards and the Delhi Police to Manila for detailed discussions with their Filipino counterparts so that the lessons drawn by them could be incorporated into the security planning for the Delhi games. One can envisage two kinds of situations:

Firstly, hijacking a normal bus or vehicle used by the public. It will be difficult to make anti-hijacking changes in them. Secondly, hijacking of buses used by the participants in the Games. Would it be possible at this late stage to provide them with remote control mrchanism for opening the doors from outside?

4. The Chinese authorities, who would be organising the Asian Games in November,2010, should also draw appropriate lessons and incorporate them in their security planning. We should also have an exchange of notes with the Chinese security agencies on how to prevent such incidents during the Commonwealth and Asian Games.

( 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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