All left the bus from the driver’s door and heavily-armed police searched the commuter bus, which had been hijacked 18 hours earlier.
Earlier, the bus hijackers had set this morning as a deadline for Greek authorities to deliver a ransom of €1 million threatening to blow up the vehicle and six remaining hostages if they did not receive the money.
One hijacker, identified only as Hassan, gave police until 8am (6am Irish time) and said he would not release any more hostages. A total of 17 passengers were released during the day.
“I will wait till 8 in the morning, when the banks open, and they bring me the driver and money. If they don’t, I will light the fuse,” the man told Alter television, speaking on a hostage’s mobile phone.
Shortly after making his demand, police said shots were fired from the bus in the direction of police snipers. No injuries were reported. The hijackers were armed with at least one pump action shotgun, which they were seen firing out of a bus window. It was unclear whether they actually had explosives.
They seized control of the bus, which had 26 people on board, at 5.50am local time about 10 miles east of Athens city centre. The bus driver, a ticket inspector and a passenger escaped almost immediately.
Police praised the driver’s quick action, which immobilised the bus and gave authorities control.
The hijackers initially demanded a new bus driver, saying they wanted to be taken to the airport and flown to Russia.
Sources in the Athens prosecutor’s office said both men were Albanians with criminal records in Greece and speculated they tried to hide their identities by pretending to be of a different nationality.
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. Police tanker trucks filled up portable generators powering mobile command centres set up nearby.
The two hijackers had not asked for food or water since they took control of the intercity bus at a stop in the Athens suburb of Geraka just before dawn.
They began releasing hostages in the early afternoon. Some looked dazed and confused as they staggered off the vehicle.
Premier Costas Caramanlis delayed a trip to an EU summit in Brussels yesterday to deal with the crisis, his spokesman said.
A scheduled demonstration by Greece’s main workers’ union to protest the rising cost of living was also postponed.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants live in Greece, including many from Albania and the former Soviet Union.
The hijacking was a first test for a Greek police force that underwent intensive training to deal with such situations during the Olympic Games. It was also the fifth time a bus has been hijacked since 1999.
The bus was on a route from the town of Marathon, east of Athens, to the city centre. It was hijacked at a stop on a highway renovated for the Olympic Games and used for the marathon race.
Earlier, one hostage revealed another demand in a mobile phone call from the bus. She said the hijackers said they would release the women in return for a driver and set free the remaining passengers once they arrived at Athens airport. She also said they were being well treated.
One hijacker also told a Greek television station he wanted to go to Russia.