Tiff with HK over Luneta hostage fiasco finally over

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In this file photo taken on August 23, 2010, Philippine policemen take position as they start their attack on a hijacked tourist bus in Manila. AFP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III’s designated trouble-shooter with Hong Kong emphatically declared Thursday that the dispute over the bungled Manila hostage rescue in which eight Chinese were killed seven others wounded in 2010, was “absolutely” over.

But while the Philippines has “settled” with Hong Kong, Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said the government was “still addressing the individual concerns of the families” of the 21 victims.

Almendras said there was no “one-size fits-all” approach to the problem, noting that the Philippine side had to consider the demands and concerns of every family.

“We’ve settled with the Hong Kong government. That issue is done. That is why the Hong Kong government has lifted all the sanctions. But now we are addressing the individual concerns of the families,” he told Malacañang reporters  a day after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced “the resolution of the incident.”

The joint statement between the two sides mentioned no categorical apology from the Philippine government, which instead expressed its “most sorrowful regret and profound sympathy” and extended its “most sincere condolences for the pain and suffering of the victims and their families.”

The agreement covered an “additional token of solidarity” to be given to the victims and their families “as a most sincere gesture of compassion of the people of the Philippines.”

“We were able to satisfy [what the families were asking for] without having to use that word (sorry or apology),” he said.

But Almendras noted that not all of the families would accept such a token, saying “some of them do not believe that it is appropriate for them to accept money” in exchange for the tragedy that befell their loved ones.

“There is an extreme sensitivity on that topic, which is precisely why we did not use the word compensation,” he said, maintaining that “no amount can ever compensate [for the loss of] human life.”

Almendras declined to disclose the amount of the “token,” but said families willing to accept it could receive it probably within the week. He said the amounts came neither from the Philippine nor Hong Kong governments, but were pooled from contributions from “businessmen and ordinary citizens” from both sides.

The “final agreement” actually came two weeks ago when Almendras said he signed a “final document” containing “records of discussions” between the Philippines and Hong Kong for more than six months.

But until last Monday, he said, he was wary that some groups might “scuttle the initiative,” mainly if some of the families were talked out of rejecting the Philippine offer.

Almendras said he and his team had met with Leung and his Hong Kong counterpart, Edward Yau, before sitting down with the victims’ families. Also in the initial meeting was Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, who earlier worked to salvage relations with Hong Kong by offering an apology to the victims.

The Cabinet secretary said Estrada’s presence the other day in Hong Kong was “helpful because there are many audiences” that the Philippine side had to deal with, such as the families and members of the local media there.

“Just to get to that point, that they [families] are agreeing to see me, was a very long struggle for us. So I started the meeting by thanking them for allowing us to finally speak to them. And then I explained and discussed every one of the four major demands that they have. And I issued the apology. I explained to them the complex nature of a national apology and an apology from the President. We discussed many options,” Almendras recalled.

Instead, it was Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima who wrote letters to the families to express the government’s “sorrowful regret and profound sympathy, and most sincere condolences.”

“The letter of Purisima, was that an apology or not? Some people are saying it was. Some people are saying it’s not,” Almendras said.

“Did I apologize for President Aquino? I did not say anything to that effect but I expressed certain emotions and certain things relative to that but it was not an outright [apology]. I have no authority to say, ‘I am sorry in behalf of the Republic of the Philippines,’ but we made sure that we address the issues.”

Prior to meeting with the families, Almendras said he had been warned by Hong Kong officials that “some of them are still very emotional so please be ready.”

Speaking for the five families that agreed to meet with Almendras’ group was the brother of Masa Tse, the tourist guide killed during the bungled rescue operation. Almendras said his team was told that the families considered the meeting “very solemn.”

“We can imagine the emotion, the difficulty. Here was the [slain tourist guide] promoting our country and this was what happened to her,” Almendras told reporters.

Almendras said he also met with Yik Siu-ling, who was shot in the jaw and had to undergo an operation in Taiwan. He said Leung had told Yik’s story to Aquino when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Indonesia last year.

“I told her that it was her story, it was her circumstances that really caused us to reopen the discussions and go to the table again,” the Cabinet secretary said.

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