A British girl and two Irish youngsters are recovering tonight after a terrifying armed school siege in Cambodia in which a fellow kindergarten pupil was killed, officials confirmed.
The three-year-old Canadian boy died during the tense stand-off which ended after police stormed the Siem Reap International School in the north-west of the country today.
The armed gang had threatened to execute pupils one-by-one before officers rescued them, a government minister said, as investigations continued.
The four-year-old British girl, two Irish children and a three-year-old Australian boy were among some 70 children involved after the gang captured teachers and a mixed kindergarten class, believed to be aged between two and four.
British ambassador David Reader flew to the stricken school, and told the Press Association: “The young British child is fine. I have spoken to her parents, but they are all fine.
“At this stage, I think she’s fine and I think … rather understandably, she’s rather confused, given her rather young age and the shocking incidents that happened. She’s with her parents now and hopefully she will be well.
“We wish to investigate with the Cambodian authorities what was the motivation (of the gang) and are there any lessons to be learned for the future ?”
The girl is understood to be the daughter of a Cambodian mother and English father, from Kingston, Surrey, who has lived in the south-east Asian country for some 12 years, working as a consultant in the water industry.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin confirmed the two Irish youngsters were unharmed, adding: “The Embassy in Beijing has been in contact with the father and he confirmed they were okay.”
Hours after the siege began, witnesses heard gunfire inside the school before children fled into the arms of panic-stricken parents. Some later angrily rounded on kidnappers, grabbing them from police and beating and kicking them, the military commander said.
The gunmen killed the child when authorities declined to meet all of their demands, and police then raided the building, Cambodian information minister Khieu Kanharith said, quoting the deputy national police chief, Neth Savoeun.
“They also threatened to kill the children one by one. Then our forces decided to storm the school,” Mr Kanharith said.
Authorities said they managed to talk the hostage takers out of the building after giving them a minivan and about €25,000 in cash. When the men got into the vehicle with four children, security forces closed the gate to the school compound and launched an assault, seizing the men from the van.
Mr Reader said there remains “some confusion as to when the child was shot, whether it was early on or later in the siege”.
It was later disclosed by police that three of the four hostage-takers had died, the ambassador said.
Mr Reader added: “We understand it started at about 9.30am and it was initially said there were six intruders but the statement by the chief of police said four men actually took part in the siege, in which three subsequently died.
“They went in with just one small handgun.
“Unfortunately 28 children overall, a mixture of two kindergarten classes, were held, of which one child unfortunately was then killed towards the end of the siege, we understand.
“But the other 27 children have all returned to their parents and as far as we understand at the moment they are well.”
The identity of the attackers was not clear, even after the siege ended.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said they appeared to be security guards at the school, but police later said teachers did not recognise them.
Mr Reader said he was not in a position to confirm reports which speculated the raid was a robbery gone wrong.
British vice-consul Gary Bonham earlier told the BBC the gang had demanded cash, weapons and transport, but said little information was known about the group, although there was speculation that they “were actually working at the school last week, erecting a marquee for a school fete, but that is as yet unconfirmed”.
The crisis unfolded at Cambodia’s tourism hub of Siem Reap, near its famed Angkor temples and home to many expatriates. It quickly aroused concern from governments around the region.
In recent years Cambodia has developed a thriving tourist industry which draws thousands of Britons to its temples, particularly the vast Angkor complex.
Asked about the effect on the tourism industry in the south-east Asian country, Ambassador Mr Reader said: “I have to say this is a most unusual set of circumstances.
“In recent times, whilst there are some problems here from the past, the international community has never before experienced anything like this.
“I think that is why we need to find out about the motivation: it is a surprise and I hope that it will be a one-off.”
A Western resident in Siem Reap said she was told by a teacher at the school that the children came from Cambodia, Italy, Indonesia, South Korea, the US, Japan, Ireland, Singapore, Britain, Australia, Canada, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Switzerland.