Surrender of hijackers ends eighteen-hour ordeal of bus passengers held in Athens

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The Independent Online

Two armed men who hijacked a busload of hostages at gunpoint in the outskirts of Athens and demanded €1m (£690,000) ransom surrendered last night.

Two armed men who hijacked a busload of hostages at gunpoint in the outskirts of Athens and demanded €1m (£690,000) ransom surrendered last night.

The hijackers surrendered shortly after issuing a warning that they would "light the fuse" of their dynamite if a deadline for payment of the ransom was not met. However, the 18-hour ordeal came to a peaceful end as they gave themselves up, and the six remaining hostages were released unharmed.

"All the hostages have been freed safely and the two hijackers have surrendered," a police spokeswoman said.

The drama began yesterday morning when two men jumped on to the bus as it stopped in the suburb of Pallini, 10 miles from the city centre. Witnesses said the men, one armed with a pump-action shotgun, began shouting and fired several shots.

In the confusion one passenger, the bus conductor and the driver escaped, with the latter taking the keys with him, stranding the vehicle.

In their first major test since a multimillion-pound revamp ahead of last summer's Athens Olympics, Greek police surrounded the bus and blocked the road. Officers from the special forces flooded the scene and snipers were positioned on rooftops as a helicopter hovered above. A security cordon was established 200 feet from the bus.

Initial reports indicated the hostage takers were Russian, but after a visit to the scene by Albania's ambassador, a police source said they believed the gunmen were Albanians.

While 23 people were initially held on board, 17 were released in batches throughout the day. Those trapped on board had limited contact with relatives and the authorities via their mobile phones, enabling the hijackers' demands to be heard.

In a call to a television station, one hostage said the men wanted a plane to Russia and planned to release all women prisoners once they were given a driver to take them to the airport. "As soon as the driver comes, they will release all women. At the airport, they want a plane to take them to Russia, and then they will release the rest of the hostages," Stella Matara said. "They have guns, they have dynamite."

As the hours passed and the stand-off continued, a growing number of hostages was steadily released. One of the first to be freed, a grey-haired man who looked to be in his 50s, stepped off the bus with his hands raised and walked to waiting police.

His son, Vassilis Bratsiakos, said: "My dad has a heart condition. I am just happy he is well and far away from the bus."

An elderly man who was among the relatives of hostages at the scene added: "I don't care what they are or who they are. I want them to release my wife. She told me she is fine and things are quiet on the bus but she sounded terrified."

As night approached, there were growing fears over the safety and conditions of the remaining six hostages on board.

A deadline for payment of the ransom was set by a man calling himself Hassan who telephoned a local television station. "I will wait till eight in the morning, when the banks open and they bring me the driver and money," he said. "If they don't, I will light the fuse."

Authorities said no food or drink had been taken on to the vehicle and the remaining hostages - four men and two women - were braced for an uncomfortable night. Temperatures were expected to drop close to zero and the bus had no heating or lavatory. Passengers and hijackers were forced to relieve themselves into plastic bags thrown near the bus.

The curtains had been drawn since the early-morning takeover, but television pictures showed one man with a rifle standing near the front.

The drama came to a close when the two gunmen surrendered, 18 hours after the start of their ambush. The last six hostages filed from the bus before police entered the vehicle and arrested the two hijackers.

Yesterday's scene was a reminder of a series of five hijackings between 1999 and 2000. In the last incident four years ago, a busload of Japanese tourists was held by a gunman in a nine-hour stand-off. The hijacking ended after the attacker agreed to surrender to a popular television talk-show host. Two bus seizures by Albanians in 1999 ended with the hostage takers being shot dead by police.

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