Hostage crisis drags on in Athens

Passengers were still being held on a Greek commuter bus tonight by two armed Albanians whose bungled hijack stalled where it began when the driver escaped with the ignition keys.

Passengers were still being held on a Greek commuter bus tonight by two armed Albanians whose bungled hijack stalled where it began when the driver escaped with the ignition keys.

Throughout the stand-off, which began before dawn in an Athens suburb, the men freed more than half of their captives in batches.

The men freed four more hostages after dark, bringing the total number released to 16. According to police, four women and three men hostages were left on the blue bus.

Police say there were a total of 26 passengers on board when the bus, on a regular route, was hijacked at 3.50am Irish time by the Albanians who boarded the vehicle and fired shots into its roof.

But, in the confusion, the hijackers allowed three people to escape, including the driver who took his keys with him.

Stranded, the gunmen and their hostages were soon surrounded by police snipers.

The men then threatened to blow the bus up with explosives unless they were taken to the airport and put on a plane to Russia, police said.

They also demanded €1m.

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.

“They want a driver to take them to the airport. They want to go to Russia,” said Stella Matara. “They don’t want money or anything else. They have guns and dynamite. I don’t know what kind. They are treating us well.”

One hijacker also told a Greek television station he wanted to go to Russia.

Albanian Ambassador Bashkim Zeneli said police asked for his help. ”I came here after I was told by Greek police that they are 99% sure the hijackers are Albanians,” he said.

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.

Outside, police – some carrying armoured shields – crouched near the bus. Snipers were on nearby rooftops and a van was parked in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving. Negotiators were at the scene.

Premier Costas Caramanlis may delay a trip to a EU summit in Brussels in order to deal with the crisis, his spokesman said.

The suspects boarded the bus at a stop in the suburb of Geraka, firing warning shots through the roof, police said.

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. The bus stop was on a highway that was renovated for the Olympic Games and used for the marathon race.

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