Gunman takes infants hostage: Man with pistol holds up nursery school children in smart Paris suburb 'purely for ransom'

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The Independent Online
A GUNMAN took a nursery school class hostage in an exclusive Paris suburb yesterday and demanded a pounds 12m ransom for their release. Seven of the original 21 children, aged between three and four, were still being held in the classroom last night.

The hooded man, carrying a pistol and wired to what he said was a bomb, wanted 100m francs ( pounds 12m) in gold bars and used banknotes, police said. Two deadlines he set, for 4pm and 8pm, passed without incident.

The Commandant Charcot nursery and primary school in Neuilly on the western outskirts of Paris was surrounded by masked members of the elite Raid police commando soon after the gunman broke into the class at 9.30am yesterday. The rest of the school was evacuated soon after the hostage-taking.

Police said the man, believed to be about 30, had remained remarkably calm throughout the day, a version corroborated by Jean-Pierre About, a journalist for the TF1 television channel who met him shortly before the start of the main evening news bulletin.

Mr About, who was summoned by the gunman and accompanied by a policeman, said the man told him he wanted to assure viewers that his motive was purely financial.

Mr About said he had been struck by the gunman's self-control and apparently easy contact with the policeman. He said the gunman carried a pistol and had a bag strapped to his chest which he said contained explosives. He carried a reel in his hand which he described as a detonator.

'He (the gunman) seemed extraordinarily calm,' Mr About said. 'It was rather surrealistic, the children were playing as children of their age do.' Mr About said the children, too small to be aware of the danger, were playing with Laurence Dreyfus, their teacher. When one asked for a glass of water, the gunman motioned to the teacher to give it, he said.

Police said that, as evening approached, some children started asking for their mothers. Tranquillisers and bedding were being supplied to them for the night, they added.

The gunman negotiated with three different officials: Nicolas Sarkozy, mayor of Neuilly and the Gaullist Budget Minister, Charles-Noel Hardy, the prefect of the Hauts de Seine department, and the senior police officer in the Raid group. Mr Hardy said there was no question of force being used to end the drama, adding that 'the situation is evolving satisfactorily'.

The gunman released 12 of the children on five different occasions during the day after a member of the school's parent- teacher association was allowed in to talk to him. Two more children were released last night.