France honours teacher heroine in nursery siege: Julian Nundy reports from Paris on the dramatic climax to a 46-hour hostage ordeal for schoolchildren as police kill 'human bomb' gunman

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The Independent Online
WEARING a royal blue sweater and showing few obvious signs of fatigue, Laurence Dreyfus stood silently behind the table where Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, gave his press conference.

Within two days, Dreyfus, 30, had become the talk of France. As a nursery teacher at the Commandant Charcot primary school in Neuilly, she looked after the children taken hostage by the gunman who took over her class of three- and four-year-olds on Thursday morning. Officials praised her calm, and her ability to keep the children amused throughout the 46-hour ordeal, which ended at 7.30am yesterday when police commandos shot Eric Schmitt, 42, dead with three bullets to the head.

As the remaining six of the original 21 children in the class played on throughout the last day, a little boy who had been freed said Mrs Dreyfus had explained that the gunman was armed 'to kill the wolf'.

Constantly turning the ordeal into a game, she was at times aided by the hooded Schmitt himself, who, according to Evelyne Lambert, a paediatrician who was allowed into the classroom on Friday to help, told the children to call him 'the bandit', and encouraged their games.

Mrs Dreyfus and Capt Lambert, a doctor with the Paris fire brigade which also runs the city's main ambulance service, are to be made members of the Legion of Honour, Mr Pasqua said yesterday. Mrs Dreyfus, he said, had shown 'exceptional courage'. Allowed to leave the classroom from time to time, she was able to meet the parents of the hostages and reassure them that their children were well.

Schmitt showed extraordinary and cruel determination, combined with a perverse compassion. He allowed a camera to be installed so that the parents could watch their children on closed-circuit television, after he had threatened in a letter to bleed them to death.

During the two days, the police surrounding the school had unusual access to the gunman, who at one point agreed to meet psychiatrists for 30 minutes, enabling them to draw up a portrait of a man who signed his letters 'H B' - which, he explained, stood for 'human bomb'. Schmitt, born to a family of European settlers in Algeria, used the English words.

With 21 sticks of dynamite in the classroom, 16 of them attached to his body, police were in no doubt about the seriousness of Schmitt's intent.

He had already demonstrated this by exploding a small bomb in an underground car park in Neuilly last weekend. In a letter to France-Soir, signed 'H B', he said that a minor incident would be followed by an event which would 'mobilise the media'.

As men of the Raid police commando - set up in 1985 specifically to deal with crimes such as hostage-taking - took up positions round the school, with snipers on roof-tops, police set out first to establish the level of risk.

They noted that the equipment around Schmitt's waist, which he said would detonate the explosives, appeared to be genuine. Analysis of the letters and notes that Schmitt sent out of the classroom confirmed that he was capable of violence. Mr Pasqua said attempts to identify the gunman before the final assault had failed.

Payment of part of the 100m franc ( pounds 12.5m) ransom Schmitt had demanded, produced the release of 15 of the children by Thursday evening.

During that night, a meeting involving Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, decided to prepare an assault. 'At the slightest sign of violence towards the children, the reaction would have been immediate,' Mr Pasqua said.

Early on Friday evening, as a white van arrived carrying three metal trunks said to contain 40m francs - in Deutschmarks, used French notes and gold bars, as instructed by Schmitt in a detailed inventory of how he wanted the money paid - it seemed that the hostage-taking was near its end.

But Schmitt first refused to exchange his explosives for a gun that police offered him, then insisted on taking along at least one child as a hostage, a condition the negotiators, led by Nicolas Sarkozy, the Budget Minister and Mayor of Neuilly, refused outright.

Schmitt then decided he wanted to take Capt Lambert and a father of one of the children, in exchange for the child. Police sources said yesterday that they had contemplated substituting a police officer for the father.

Capt Lambert said that one of the most bizarre moments came at about 3am yesterday, when Schmitt made her and Mrs Dreyfus count out the millions of francs that had already been delivered. Schmitt's explosives were placed around the classroom, she said, making it difficult to walk around without touching the wires leading to his detonator.

Schmitt, who had surprised the police by his calm in the early hours of the incident, became more and more nervous as time went on, police said. He asked repeatedly for black coffee to help him to stay awake.

At 4.40am yesterday, extra police arrived at the school, and journalists outside were asked to move 50 metres down the road. At about 7.30am, according to Mr Pasqua, police took over the classroom during a moment when Schmitt had dozed off. According to some accounts, they walled off the children with mattresses while three bullets were fired from a silenced gun into Schmitt's head, killing him instantly.

Asked if the authorities had done anything 'to help (Schmitt) sleep', Mr Pasqua answered: 'There is no reply to that question.'

(Photographs, maps and graphic omitted)