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Hijacked Bus 'Stand off' Grips Greece

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A tense stand-off is continuing in the Greek capital, Athens, more than 12 hours after foreign gunmen seized a bus carrying about two dozen passengers.

Two Albanians hijacked the bus at dawn and threatened to bomb the bus if they were not given safe passage to Russia.

Hostages were released at regular intervals throughout the day, with reports saying that seven remain.

The crisis led Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to delay his departure for an EU summit in Brussels.

Hostage Stella Matara told Greek television in a mobile phone call from the bus that the gunmen wanted a driver to take them to the airport.

The original driver escaped during the initial confusion, taking the keys with him.

They would release all the women when the driver arrived, she said.

"At the airport, they want a plane to take them to Russia, and then they will release the rest of the hostages," Reuters news agency reported her as saying.

So far they had not harmed the hostages, Ms Matara said.

"They have guns, they have dynamite. I can see them in front of me. I don't know what will happen later because both they and us are now very, very nervous."

Members of Greece's elite anti-terrorist units, who were trained to provide security for this year's Athens Olympics, are surrounding the bus.

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant, who is at the scene, says that a senior government source has confirmed that the two men were Albanian nationals whose primary demand was to be allowed to leave Greece.

The Greek authorities are determined to continue their policy of peaceful negotiation, which appears to be having some success, our correspondent adds.

One of the released hostages told a Greek radio station the hijackers have demanded a 1m euro (£690,000) ransom, the AFP news agency reported.

Police said they had no knowledge of the demand.

Dawn raid

The bus was seized at about 0600 (0400 GMT), shortly after the men boarded the bus in the suburb of Pikermi.

They closed curtains and fired shots through the roof, stopping the bus outside the Moratone nightclub in another suburb, Gerakas.

The bus is on the Marathon Road, a key feeder route close to a turning for Athens airport.

Police and hostage negotiation teams quickly moved into position, sparking more gunfire, although no one was injured.

Amid confusion the bus driver, the ticket inspector and a passenger managed to escape.

"I stopped the bus, I opened the doors in order for the people to come out, I opened my door as well and I pulled one woman out," the driver, who was not named, told Greek television.

Nikos Koutsogiorgos, head of bus operator KTel, told the BBC the driver had acted in line with anti-terror training.

Five years ago, Greece witnessed two bus hijackings within two months.

In both cases, an Albanian man took control of the vehicle, demanding money and safe passage to Albania.

Both hijackers were shot dead by security forces. In one of the incidents, a passenger was also killed.


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Greek bus hijackers set deadline for ransom

Attackers, holding 7 hostages, demand $1 million, flight to Russia

ATHENS, Greece - Two gunmen armed with explosives who hijacked a Greek bus early Wednesday released 16 of the 23 passengers they took hostage, but one said that no more would be freed and set a deadline for delivery of a $1 million ransom and a plane to fly he and his partner to Russia.

“I will wait until eight o’clock tomorrow (1 a.m. ET Thursday) for the money and the driver," said the man, who identified himself only as “Hassan” in a mobile phone call to Greece’s Alter TV. “I am not letting anyone else go.”

The men, identified by officials in the Athens prosecutor’s office as Albanians with criminal records in Greece, seized control of the bus at 5:50 a.m. about 10 miles east of the city center. The bus driver, a ticket inspector and a passenger escaped in the early moments of the hijacking.

Earlier, a hijacker phoned the Alpha television station to threaten to harm the hostages if the demands are not met.

“Tell them to move the van from in front of us or we will blow up the bus,” the hijacker said in Greek to Athens’ Alpha television station. “Tell them to get all the police away from here. We want to go to the airport and fly to Russia. All passengers will get off there. We haven’t harmed anyone, but if the driver is delayed, I said that I will strike.”

Hostage says gunmen have explosives

A hostage on board the bus said the gunmen had explosives.

Hundreds of police officers, snipers in camouflage attire and special forces took up positions around the vehicle, which had curtains drawn on its windows to block views inside. The bus was hemmed in by a police car and van next to a large supermarket, a McDonald’s restaurant, a seedy nightclub and a gas station.

After a visit to the hijack scene by Albania's ambassador and telephone talks between the law and order ministers of Greece and Albania, a senior police official told Reuters that authorities believed the gunmen were Albanians.

"Unless we see their passports we can't be 100 percent certain, but we are operating now on the belief they are from Albania," the official said.

Hundreds of thousands of Albanians live in Greece. Many came from the neighboring country to help with construction work for the Athens Olympics.

"The figure of $1 million (ransom) has been mentioned in negotiations with the hijackers, but they have given no other details regarding where they want to go to," the police official said.

Warning shots fired

There have been no reports of injuries, but live television showed one gunman approaching the front of the bus and firing off two warning shots.

"I don't care what they are or who they are. I want them to release my wife," said an elderly man who was among dozens of relatives of hostages who rushed to the scene.

He said he had spoken to his wife by phone.

"She told me she is fine and things are quiet on the bus but she sounded terrified," he said.

As the standoff gripped the nation, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis postponed his departure for a European Union summit in Brussels until Thursday.

Stella Matara, a hostage still on the bus, told state-run television in a mobile phone call that the hijackers, armed with guns and dynamite, had promised to release all women hostages once a driver was provided.

"They want a police bus to leave from in front of our bus, as well as a driver to take them to the airport," Matara said. "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."

The bus was seized along a highway at a stop in in the suburb of Geraka, about 10 miles east of central Athens, police said.

Albanians involved in previous hijackings

The seizure of the bus was the first such incident since a spate of bus hijackings in Greece in 1999-2000.

In May 1999 an Albanian immigrant demanding ransom hijacked a bus and took it to Albania. A rescue operation by Albanian police killed the hijacker and a passenger.

Two months later, another Albanian immigrant hijacked a bus with similar demands. He was killed by a police sniper.

In November 2000, a Greek hijacked a bus carrying 35 Japanese tourists and released them after negotiations with police. He later died after jumping out of a seventh-story window at police headquarters.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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Athens bus hostages are released

Six people held hostage aboard a bus in Athens for 19 hours have been released and their captors have surrendered.

The six hostages filed off the bus in the early hours of Thursday and were taken off to be debriefed by police.

The two armed hijackers - suspected to be Albanians - had released 17 of the original 23 people taken hostage in small groups over the day.

But they had threatened to blow up the bus if a ransom of 1m euros (£700,000) had not been paid by morning.

The remaining hostages - thought to be four women and two men - finally walked off the bus, their hands above their heads, at about 0045 (2245 GMT Wednesday).

The police were then seen storming the bus to capture the hijackers.

Day-long crisis

The crisis began at about 0600 (0400 GMT) after the men boarded the bus in the suburb of Pikermi.

They closed curtains and fired shots through the roof, stopping the bus outside the Moratone nightclub in another suburb, Gerakas.

But the bus driver, the ticket collector and a female passenger immediately escaped from the bus - the driver taking the ignition keys with him.

The hostage-takers then issued a series of shifting demands, though reporters say there were no apparent political motives for the hijacking.

Initially, it was reported, the hijackers demanded a plane to Russia, but later one hostage calling himself "Hassan" phoned a demand for a 1m-euro ransom to private TV stations.

"I am going to wait until tomorrow at 0800 [0600 GMT] for the banks to open and at 0800 I will light the fuse unless I have the money and a driver," he said.

"I am not going to release anybody else. It is over."


The hijackers' shifting demands suggested the gunmen were desperately trying to manoeuvre out of a trap of their own making, says our correspondent Richard Galpin from Athens.

Local Albanians and police have said they believe the two hijackers are both Albanians but "Hassan" reportedly insisted he was a Russian - a claim doubted by local Russian diplomats.

They are believed to have been armed with at least one pump-action shotgun and the area around the bus was bristling with members of Greece's elite anti-terrorist units, trained to provide security for this year's Athens Olympics.

Correspondents say there are fears the incident could cause a reaction against the large Albanian community in Greece.

Two Albanians hijacked separate buses five years ago and both were killed by security forces, with a hostage also dying.

The Greek authorities as well as relatives will be relieved that bloody precedent has not been repeated, says our correspondent.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis delayed his departure for an EU summit in Brussels because of the crisis.

Story from BBC NEWS:

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Greek bus hijacking ends peacefully

Gunmen release final six hostages

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.

Police had ruled out international terrorism earlier in the day, saying the hijackers, believed to be Albanians, were criminals seizing an opportunity.

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.


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