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Greek bus hijacking ends peacefully and final six hostages released HA-16-12-04

Thursday, December 16, 2004 Posted: 2:40 AM EST (0740 GMT)

 

ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- Two armed hijackers who had threatened to blow up a commuter bus in Greece released all of their remaining captives early Thursday and surrendered to authorities. The peaceful conclusion brought a dramatic end to the hostage-taking about 18 hours after it began -- a standoff that gripped much of the nation as the hours ticked by for the hijackers' demands to be met. The hijackers had demanded 1 million ($1.34 million) and a driver to take them to the Athens airport to be flown to Russia. They set a deadline of 8 a.m. Thursday (6 .a.m. GMT) and said the bus would be blown up if their demands were not met. But at around 12:40 a.m. that morning (10:40 p.m. GMT), the hijackers threw three guns from a bus window, and moments later the remaining six hostages slowly walked off the bus with their hands held behind their heads.

Anti-terrorist units moved in quickly and seized the bus without firing a shot.

 

Authorities later identified the two 24-year-old suspects as Mourataj Leonard and Resuli Njazi, both Albanians who had been living in Greece. Officials said neither of the men had a criminal record, and they praised relatives of the men who were brought to the standoff site and helped bring an end to the negotiations. Police Chief George Angelakos said the hijackers were not armed with explosives, as they claimed to have had, and he said ultimately they just wanted money and to go to Albania, not Russia.

 

The gunmen boarded the bus on its third or fourth stop as it headed toward Athens from the suburb of Marathon around 6 a.m. on Wednesday. The bus was carrying 24 passengers, the driver and a ticket counter. When the men flashed their rifles, the bus driver immediately stopped the coach and opened the doors, hoping to allow the passengers to escape. The driver, ticket counter and a female passenger fled safely and alerted police. As the day passed and the standoff continued, the hijackers began releasing passengers, mostly in batches of two and threes. But late Wednesday, one of the hijackers, who called himself "Hassan," told a local television station of their demands and set the deadline for the bus to be blown up.

At the time, he said no more hostages would be released unless their demands were met.

 

A massive security team responded shortly after the standoff began, with anti-terrorist units encircling the area and snipers taking up positions on rooftops. The bus remained parked along a road in Marathon, flanked by two police vehicles, and the hijackers closed the curtains on the bus, preventing authorities from seeing inside. Authorities quickly began negotiations with the two men, who spoke fluent Greek. Police said they believed the men were criminals and not connected to international terrorism. Some of the hostages reported that the hijackers treated their captives well, and even served them croissants and water. Journalist Anthee Carassavas told CNN that police had taken the earlier hostages' release as a positive sign as they tried desperately to defuse the situation through intense negotiation. The Albanian ambassador to Greece was on the scene, Carassavas reported, and Greece's public order minister made at least two calls to his Albanian counterpart.

Hundreds of thousands of Albanians live in Greece, many of them having arrived to help with construction work for last August's Athens Olympics.

 

In 2000, an armed man hijacked a bus carrying Japanese tourists in Athens after he allegedly shot and killed his mother-in-law and another man. He surrendered to authorities after a 12-hour standoff, and the hostages were released mostly unharmed.

The ancient town of Marathon is best known for being the birthplace of the modern day marathon, the grueling 26.2-mile (42 kilometer) road race. The road where the hijacking occurred had been renovated for this summer's Games and was part of the Olympic marathon course.

 

CNN's Alessio Vinci and journalists Elisabeth Filippoulis and Anthee Carassavas contributed to this report.