Children freed as nursery gunman shot dead

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A gunman who held children hostage in a Luxemburg nursery has been shot by police as they ended the seige with an armed assault.

A gunman who held children hostage in a Luxemburg nursery has been shot by police as they ended the seige with an armed assault.

Police in the tiny Duchy had no previous experience of armed siege situations, but appear to have ended the crisis in the small town of Wasserbillig without any of the hostages being harmed.

The hostage taker was said by Luxemburg police to be dying.

Earlier the man had released four of the toddlers, but that still left 25 children and three adults in his power as he demanded a plane to Libya.

The man had demanded that he and the hostages be taken to Luxembourg airport early Thursday, but an 8:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) deadline he set to go to the airport came and went without incident.

Shortly after the deadline, a bus left the nursery with two children who were released and returned to their waiting parents. Two other children, all between three and four, were freed around 1 p.m. (1100 GMT).

"The children are in good physical conditions," said police divisional commissioner Andree Colas, adding some had already gone home with their parents.

"It is a terrible shock for the other parents," whose children were still held in the nursery, said Fernando Oliveira, an uncle of two children still being held. The hostage taker has released a dozen children since he entered the nursery Wednesday afternoon.

It remained unclear why the 39-year-old Luxembourg man of Tunisian origins would want to fly to Libya. Colas said he had dropped his demand for 60 million francs.

As the standoff progressed through its second day, tensions rose, especially, after the man appeared in a window on the top floor of the school and waved his gun and grenade beside a picture of a teddy bear. Officials have said the man has a history of mental illness.

"We are still in regular contact with the hostage taker by phone," Schmit told a news conference. "As far as we can tell the situation is calm, but there is a certain fatigue. ... The climate is becoming more tense."

RTL Luxembourg radio said early Thursday that a man identifying himself as the hostage taker called the station twice, insisting the children inside the school were fine and had been playing late into the night.

The man said he was driven to this act of desperation "because of custody problems" surrounding his two children, said an RTL journalist, who asked not to be named.

The man armed with a grenade, pistol and knife, took 37 children hostage Wednesday at the nursery in Wasserbillig, a town of 2,300 people which lies on the bucolic Mosselle River near the border with Germany in eastern Luxembourg. Late Wednesday night, he released eight children who were returned to their parents in good condition. The ages of the children still in the school range from 2 to 11 years.

Parents were kept informed throughout the night by regular police updates on the situation, said Joao Carlos Alves Pereira, whose 7-year-old daughter is in the nursery.

The incident has shocked this normally quiet corner of Europe. Anxious onlookers gathered near the barricades around the building, which was surrounded by ambulances, fire trucks and a growing number of media trucks.

"I was working. I didn't know anything about it. I got home, and the police were everywhere," said 40-year-old Seraphine Freitas, the father of two girls, ages 7 and 8, who are among the hostages.

"They told us the kids were sleeping and that they had been fed, and that they had all been sleeping in one room," said Freitas, who had left the hastily established crisis center to await any news at the edge of the police line.

His wife was still at the crisis center, he said. "She's very down. That's what you would expect. We have to get through this," he said.

Authorities believe the kidnapper's own children had at one time attended the same nursery, which is located behind the town square in a quiet, secluded residential neighborhood. About 50 children attend the nursery.

Local residents said the hostage taker blamed the nursery and held a grudge against its director for the fact that he lost custody of his children when he separated from his wife.

In a statement late Wednesday, Luxembourg's Interior Minister Michel Wolter said he had "given instructions to use all means necessary to resolve this matter without the use of violence."

The man spoke by phone with his own psychiatrist, who was at the scene.

More than 130 police stationed around the nursery were reinforced by sharpshooters and special German police units that arrived during the night.

One teacher managed to smuggle six or seven children out of the nursery just after the hostage taker entered the building, police said.

Parents of the hostage children are being counseled by police psychologists at a local art center, which was converted to a crisis center.

According to local officials and Portuguese Embassy staff on the scene, nine of the children being held are of Portuguese origin. Police confirmed that several children were also French nationals.

Violent crimes are rare in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which lies between Belgium, Germany and France.