Manila raps HK police over bullets in luggage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong police officers were stopped at Manila airport yesterday carrying spent ammunition fired from weapons used in last week's deadly hostage-taking of tourists from the city.

The officers' actions earned them a reprimand from a senior Philippine justice official.

The pair, part of a team conducting forensic examinations in the wake of the incident, in which eight Hongkongers were killed, had clearance from Philippine National Police to take the bullets and shell casings home as evidence for their inquiry. But Department of Justice Undersecretary Jose Salazar said they also needed clearance from his department.

Chief Inspector Li Kwai-wah and an officer with him were questioned after the bullets and casings were found in their hand baggage.

Salazar, who was called to the airport to clear up what he described as a misunderstanding, said the officers had promised it would not happen again. 'Nothing should be taken from the crime labs unless they are cleared with the DOJ', which was lead agency in the investigation, he said.

In Hong Kong, police said they had clearance from 'concerned departments' in the Philippines.

The incident came at a sensitive time. The botched police attempt to rescue the hostages, and their handling of the siege aboard a Manila tour bus in the hours before the killings began, drew strong criticism from people and officials in Hong Kong. This week there was fresh criticism after it was found that coffins containing three of the eight killed had been wrongly labelled in Manila before being flown to Hong Kong.

The ammunition the officers were carrying was fired from hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza's weapons during tests by the Hong Kong police team.

Manila media reported four .223 calibre Armalite bullets and casings and four .45 calibre bullets and casings were detected in Li's carry-on luggage by an X-ray machine as the pair entered the airport shortly before 1pm.

They were allowed to pass because they were escorted by a Chinese embassy official. But the Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group was alerted and waited for them to declare the items at the check-in counter. When they did not, the airport police approached them and asked them to explain.

They were taken to the airport police office, where the second officer was found to be carrying a further four .223 calibre Armalite bullets and casings and another four .45 calibre bullets.

Three officers travelling with them were allowed to board their flight but Li caught a later flight. The second officer, who has not been named, stayed in Manila.

Manila's airport terminals prominently display signs warning departing passengers not to bring any empty bullet casings with them even as a form of fashion accessory. The Chinese embassy said a 'little problem in communication' led to the hold-up.

Philippine authorities required some procedures to be completed before the officers could take the [spent ammunition] out of the country, embassy spokesman Sun Yi said.

Sun said the two officers were questioned but not detained.

Li had no comment when he landed in Hong Kong.

James To Kun-Sun, vice-chairman of the Legislative Council security panel, said the incident showed 'the tension and lack of co-operation among various departments'.

Police Inspectors Association chairman Tony Liu Kit-ming said merely: 'I think it shows how chaotic the policies of the Philippines are.'

Benito Lim, a professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila university, said Manila police were nervous about evidence being taken to Hong Kong given their colleagues' bullets may have killed some of the hostages.