Cambodian security forces stormed an international school in the northern town of Siem Reap yesterday, rescuing dozens of kindergarten children being held by masked gunmen but not before a Canadian boy aged three had been shot dead.
The men had threatened to kill their hostages - aged between two and six, including a British girl - one by one. But the eight-hour siege near the Angkor Wat temples ended in chaotic scenes, with one Italian parent dodging bullets to snatch his son to safety, and police emerging from the school with armfuls of terrified children.
Last night, parents and diplomats were piecing together the events at Siem Reap International School, which involved children of 14 foreign nationalities. Four gunmen, armed with a handgun and knives, burst in at around 9.30am local time and seized 70 children and three teachers, holding them hostage inside their classrooms.
They later released about 30 children, but shot the Canadian boy in the head when authorities refused to give them weapons. They then threatened to kill the others, prompting police to storm the compound.
Distraught parents waiting outside heard gunfire and their children screaming. The men tried to flee in a van they had been given as a getaway vehicle, together with $30,000 (about £16,500) in cash. But as they herded some children into the van, military police pounced, smashing windows and opening fire.
The Italian ambassador to neighbouring Thailand, Ignacio di Palma, said it was in the ensuing mêlée that the three-year-old Italian boy was rescued. "The father of this child told us he jumped in during the confusion and managed to get his son out," he said.
Other children, including two Irish youngsters, were delivered into the arms of panic-stricken parents. The British ambassador, David Reader, said the British girl - understood to be four years old, with a Cambodian mother and British father - was fine.
"Rather understandably, she's rather confused, given her young age and the shocking things that happened," Mr Reader said.
Police initially said six armed men were involved, two of whom were shot dead when they tried to escape via a rear exit. Later they revised the figure to four, and said three of them had died, but did not say how.
According to police, the leader of the gang was a security guard at the school, while the other three did a similar job at three hotels in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Many pupils at the school were the children of expatriate hotel workers drawn to Siem Reap by the booming tourism trade.
More than a million tourists visited Cambodia last year, most of them drawn to Siem Reap, a laid-back town that serves as the base for visiting the 800-year-old Angkor Wat complex. Although Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are safe, foreigners are warned against going to remote areas because of bandits, guerrilla groups and unexploded ordnance and mines.Reuse content