Hong Kong victims of Philippine bus hijacking return in solemn homecoming

HONG KONG (AP) — The eight Hong Kong victims of a deadly bus hijacking in Manilawere returned on Wednesday to the wealthy Chinese territory, where many are still angry at the Philippines handling of the crisis.

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. Tearful relatives wearing black armbands placed another.

"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.

Flags flew at half-staff for a second day Wednesday. The Hong Kong government ordered a citywide observance of a three-minute silence in the former British colony of 7 million people on Thursday morning.

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. Accustomed to law and order, efficient government and a comfortable lifestyle of gourmet restaurants and designer shops, Hong Kongers were stunned to hear in live TV broadcasts gunshots ring from a curtained tour bus hijacked by a gunman in the Philippine capital after a daylong standoff on Monday.

Hong Kongers reacted with disbelief when commandos moved in after a sniper took out the hijacker and rescuers recovered bodies of eight of their own: businessman Ken Leung and daughters Doris and Jessie; banker Fu Cheuk-yan; tour guide Masa Tse; subway operator employee Wong Tze-lam, his wife and sister-in-law. Canadian media has also identified the Leungs as Canadian nationals.

The massive public mourning has mixed with vehement outrage at the Philippine government for failed negotiations with the hostage-taker — a former police officer seeking reinstatement.

Philippine police have defended their actions, pointing out that officers lacking proper equipment had risked their lives in trying to bring the standoff to an end. But they promised to review all events leading to the deaths.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, facing his first major crisis since taking office on June 30, has quickly shifted into damage-control mode, briefing the Chinese ambassador on the government's initial findings. He said he called Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang to express sadness and "begged" for understanding. He declared Wednesday a national day of mourning, ordering flags lowered at government offices and embassies.

Philippine Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo, who is in charge of the national police, has acknowledged there were problems with how the crisis was handled, including inadequacies in preparation, equipment and training.

Manila Police Chief Rodolfo Magtibay took leave and four leaders of the assault team were relieved pending an investigation. The firearms used by 200 police commandos will be subjected to ballistic tests to determine if some of the hostages were hit by police gunfire, officials said.

Still, outrage and suspicion are running deep in Hong Kong. Many messages left on the Facebook page the Hong Kong government set up as an online tribute to the victims targeted Aquino, with one directing Cantonese profanities at the president and another calling him "scum."

"Let's boycott the Philippines. The attitude of Aquino III is completely unacceptable. I won't go to the Philippines again, and I won't buy anything coming from this country, not even their mangos," Rida Leung wrote.

Even before the shootings, the relationship between the Hong Kong and the Philippines has been delicate, complicated by the tens of thousands of Filipino domestic helpers serving as live-in helpers in the Chinese territory. They work long hours for meager pay — their monthly minimum wage is $460 — helping raise the children of Hong Kong professionals and tending to their elderly parents. Allegations of employer abuse and ethnic discrimination are common.

While Hong Kong officials have urged their citizens not to succumb to nationalism, they too have shown skepticism toward Philippine authorities.

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 local custody. While Filipino authorities have conducted autopsies on five of the victims, the relatives of the other three have refused to let their bodies be examined, Hong Kong Undersecretary for Security T.K. Lai told reporters in Manila earlier in the day.

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 told The Associated Press in a phone interview.