Benigno Aquino
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Benigno Aquino at a simulated hostage situation. Photo: EPA

Benigno Aquino turns on ally over police guns deal

President aghast after finding weapons online at half the price, as scandal envelops trusted official previously criticised over bus shootings

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has revealed that he scrapped a 392-million peso (HK$72.9 million) police arms deal after he went online and found, at half the price, guns the force preferred to those ordered.

The growing scandal yesterday forced the resignation of Interior and Local Governments Undersecretary Rico Puno, a close ally of the president, with special responsibility for police, who has been linked to the deal. Puno had been heavily criticised over his handling of the botched rescue of Hong Kong hostages on a Manila bus in 2010.

The scrapping of the gun deal in June was only revealed late last week, when a government report linking Puno to a conflict of interest over the deal was leaked.

Aquino, a gun enthusiast, said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum meeting in Vladivostok on Saturday he was aghast to find that the winning bid for the National Police purchase of 3,300 weapons had priced an initial batch of Galil ACE rifles at 89,450 pesos apiece, or about US$2,150. "I used Google search and that's how I found so many firearms were being sold below US$1,000," he said.

The Galil was not even the preferred gun of the police, who had specified the M4 carbine.

The deal was scrapped on Aquino's order on June 25.

According to a transcript of his comments, made on Saturday, Aquino said: "If you look on the internet, you can get [the M4] for as little as US$800 plus."

On Saturday, Aquino said he had asked Puno, a family friend whom he appointed to be his "eyes and ears" on all police matters, to resign. Puno quit, saying that he had performed to the best of his abilities.

Senators have summoned Puno to a hearing on Friday to question him about the deal.

He will also be questioned over bizarre events that led to the aborted deal being revealed.

The first hint of scandal came last week when reports emerged that Puno, accompanied by several police, tried unsuccessfully to enter the home of the late local government secretary Jesse Robredo on August 19, the day after Robredo died in a plane crash.

ABS-CBN news then published a leaked report on the arms deal linking Puno to the anomalous purchase. The report had been delivered to Robredo two weeks before he died. Local media have suggested that Puno went to the apartment with police to search for the report.

The report was apparently commissioned by Robredo after Aquino had the gun deal scrapped. According to a copy of the report posted on the ABS-CBN website, Puno was involved in a possible conflict of interest, having flown to Israel where the Galil ACE is made, accompanied by the winning bidder. At the time, Puno was supposed to have been on vacation with his family, and not on official business.

At the Apec summit, Aquino told reporters that Puno had been widely blamed for the bloody end to the 2010 hostage taking, in which eight Hongkongers died. "He [Puno] was pilloried and I assumed full responsibility for that," Aquino said.

An independent probe into the bus incident had recommended that Puno be charged with "gross negligence". Aquino later absolved Puno of blame.

The president hinted on Saturday that he now regarded this as a mistake. "I should have … perhaps not trusted certain people," he said. "And we've corrected that situation."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Aquinoturns on ally over guns deal