Police rescue girls and kill gunman: Lightning raid by commandos ends hours of torture for parents

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IN AN operation lasting just a few seconds, French police commandos rescued six little girls from a booby-trapped classroom early yesterday and shot dead the gunman who had held them hostage for 46 hours.

They struck as Eric Schmitt, 42, dozed off and killed him when he awoke as the girls were being whisked away. 'We had to aim for the head because we knew he had explosives on his body,' said one commando, declining to give his name. 'We couldn't take the slightest chance.'

All the children were safe, and at the moment the shots were fired they were screened from the scene by matresses. 'The kids clutched on to us,' said the commando. 'They were super.' Laurence Dreyfus, the young teacher who kept up the children's spirits throughout their ordeal, was yesterday awarded the Legion of Honour.

The operation ended one of the most sinister and bizarre crimes in France in recent years. Schmitt took over the classroom in the school in the Paris suburb of Neuilly at 9.30am on Thursday, originally holding 21 three- and four-year-olds captive with Ms Dreyfus. At one stage in the siege, he threatened to bleed the children to death.

Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, said negotiations had broken down when Schmitt, who was preparing to make his getaway with at least part of the 100m Franc ( pounds 12m) ransom he had demanded, insisted on taking at least one child along in a group of hostages. Mr Pasqua said this was the one condition the government would not accept.

Evelyne Lambert, a pediatrician who was allowed to join Ms Dreyfus to look after the children, said Schmitt, whose operation seemed to have been meticulously planned, had settled on the ransome of Fr100m 'because he reckoned he had one chance in 100 million of getting away with it'.

Mr Pasqua emphasised that force had been a last resort and the decision to go in was taken after Schmitt's attitude hardened. Schmitt had been wired to 21 sticks of dynamite, 16 attached to his body and the others spread around the classroom.

Officials heaped praise on Ms Dreyfus for her handling of the crisis, which she turned into a game of bandits and wolves for the children. Ms Lambert, who also received the Legion of Honour yesterday, said: 'From time to time there were a few tears, and they would say, 'When is it going to be time for the mummies to come?' ' But their spirits remained high, and very soon after being freed they were playing happily again.

'The children are less traumatised than we are,' said Nicolas Sarkozy, the Budget Minister and mayor of Neuilly who led the negotiations.

Schmitt had insisted that journalists be placed along his route out of Paris, apparently believing that this would guarantee his safety, and asked for a getaway car and a back-up vehicle in case of a breakdown. In a conversation on Thursday evening, he insisted that his motives were only financial.

Yesterday's swift action, generally welcomed, restored the image of the French police, damaged after several people were killed during arrests or in custody.

(Photograph omitted)

Teacher heroine, page 11