Athens bus gunmen will 'light fuse' if $1m ransom is not paid

 

GREECE: Two suspected Albanians armed with rifles and dynamite hijacked a packed passenger bus in Athens yesterday and warned they would "light the fuse" if today's deadline for payment of a $1 million ransom was not met.

As night fell hours after the early morning drama began, the gunmen had freed 17 of an original 23 hostages.

But the releases came to an abrupt halt after one hijacker set an 8 a.m. (6 a.m. Irish time) deadline for this morning for payment of the ransom and vowed not to free any of the remaining hostages - two men and four women - until his demand was met.

"I will wait until eight o'clock tomorrow for the money and the driver," the man, who identified himself as Hassan, said in a mobile phone call from the bus to Greece's Alter TV. "Otherwise I'm going to light the fuse. I am not letting anyone else go."

One of the hijackers then fired a warning shot in the direction of a nearby petrol station. No one was injured.

Hundreds of helmeted police officers, snipers in camouflage fatigues and special forces were in position around the blocked blue bus, parked about 10 km east of Athens's centre.

Dozens of relatives of hostages gathered at the scene.

Hassan, speaking fluent Greek, said in a phone call to another TV station that he was Russian.

Greek and Albanian authorities, however, said they were convinced the hijackers, like some of the hostages, were Albanians.

"One of the released Albanians believes he has identified one of them as an Albanian from Elbasan and the other from Berat," the Albanian ambassador to Greece, Mr Bashkim Zeneli, said, naming cities in central Albania.

Police believe the hijackers may want to portray themselves as Russians rather than Albanians to avoid a backlash against the large Albanian immigrant community in Greece. Russian diplomats said they did not believe the men were Russians.

There were no reports of injuries, but a hostage said the gunmen had explosives either strapped around their waist or in a suitcase they had brought on the bus.

Negotiators talked with the hijackers throughout the day convincing them to release hostages in twos and threes.

Ms Stella Matara, a hostage still on the bus, told state TV in a mobile phone call that the hijackers wanted a driver to take them to Athens airport and a plane to take them to Russia.

The original driver, a ticket collector and a woman passenger managed to escape from the bus in the first seconds of the hijack when shots were fired during the takeover.

"At the airport they want a plane to take them to Russia and then they will release the rest of the hostages," Ms Matara said.

Relatives crammed a café near the bus, glued to a television set transmitting live images of the ordeal. "I don't care what they are or who they are. I want them to release my wife," said an elderly man among dozens of relatives.

As night fell, police snipers moved closer to the bus, which was hemmed in by a police car and a van next to a large supermarket.

About 1 million of Greece's 11 million population are Albanian immigrants or of recent Albanian descent - Greece's biggest minority group. Many came from the neighbouring nation to help with building work for last summer's Athens Olympics.

Two hijackings by Albanians in 1999 ended with the two hostage-takers being killed by police.

The Greek Prime Minister, Mr Costas Karamanlis, postponed his departure for a European Union summit in Brussels by a day to today to deal with the crisis.