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Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking: ‘We did our best, we saved lives’

By Jeannette Andrade
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:16:00 03/16/2011

Filed Under: Grandstand Hostage, Police, Tourism, Local authorities

MANILA, Philippines?It was not last year?s hostage-taking at the Quirino Grandstand that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead which proved traumatic for members of the Manila Police District?s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.

Rather, it was the name-calling and scathing comments thrown their way after their botched attempt to rescue the foreigners from their captor, dismissed Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza.

Nearly seven months after the tragic August 23 incident, members of the assault team say they have moved on.

Senior Supt. Nelson Yabut is the former head of the MPD?s District Police Safety Battalion (DPSB) which is in charge of the SWAT team. He was called a gatecrasher and action star-wannabe when he joined the operatives who launched an assault on the Hong Thai bus without any protective gear and his police cap donned backwards.

?I was their chief. I headed the unit that conducted the assault. I could not just stand by and watch as my men risked their lives against the bullets and the downpour. I had to do something as their superior officer. All policemen there [at the Quirino Grandstand] had to do something but where were they?? Yabut told the Inquirer in a recent interview.

He laughed when reminded that after the hostage-taking, some of his colleagues dubbed him ?Robin Padilla? after the actor star who often wore a baseball cap in reverse.

It was just more practical to wear his headgear that way, Yabut said. ?I needed full visibility. The visor was getting in the way of my vision.?

He also brushed aside accusations that he was after glory when he joined the assault.

?The hostage-taking had to end with the rescue of the tourists. Everyone in the assault teams knew that. So what we lacked in equipment, our assault teams more than made up for in courage. While others hid and waited, we were the few who actually did something to end the crisis,? he said.

Yabut, who has been cleared of administrative charges in connection with the botched rescue attempt, was promoted early this month based on an application he had submitted before the incident. The processing of his papers was put on hold pending the resolution of the case filed against him.

However, his promotion has made him ineligible to retain his post as DPSB chief. He has since been reassigned to the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame pending his appointment to a new post.

As for the MPD SWAT team, it remains intact except for team leader Chief Insp. Santiago Pascual III and assault team leaders SPO2 Bernardo Espinosa, SPO4 Reynaldo Antonio and SPO3 Alfonso Gameng Jr. who were relieved and reassigned to the National Capital Region Police Office pending the outcome of the cases filed against them.

Senior Insp. Joey de Ocampo, officer in charge of the MPD rapid deployment unit, declared the SWAT unit ?fully recovered? from the trauma as a result of the hostage-taking.

?It was painful that we were put in a bad light. But our men are past all that,? he said.

After undergoing stress debriefing, the SWAT members were sent in batches to the PNP School for Values and Leadership at Clark Special Economic Zone in Angeles City, Pampanga, for 45 days of intensive training to further hone their skills.

They also received more equipment?15 Kevlar ballistics helmets, 25 bulletproof vests, 30 gas masks, 32 Glock 9 mm pistols, and five 12-gauge semi-automatic shotguns?to boost their capability in assault operations.

?They have come to understand that something like that happens to even the best so it should not affect their morale. Even elite special forces in other countries fail some of their missions and technically we cannot say that the hostage rescue at the Quirino Grandstand was a failure because there were hostages saved,? De Ocampo stressed.

He emphasized, ?They did their best as best as they could given their limitations at the time. They wanted to save people and they did. We all know Mendoza had already shot and killed a number of his hostages. The assault teams neutralized the hostage-taker before he could kill more hostages.?

A SWAT team member who took part in the assault remarked that it was easy for onlookers and so-called foreign experts who have not participated in actual rescue operations to criticize and find fault with them.

?Theories do not always work in reality because they are based on ideal situations,? said the SWAT man who asked not to be identified.

He added, ?We were there. We did our best. We saved lives.?

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