Masked gunmen seized dozens of children at an international school in north-western Cambodia today, killing a three-year-old Canadian boy and threatening to shoot the others one-by-one before police rescued the remaining hostages, police and government officials said.
The attackers stormed Siem Reap International School this morning, taking students from several countries hostage and demanding money, weapons and a vehicle before police ended the six-hour stand-off, taking four gunmen into custody, at least one of whom was wounded.
The gunmen shot the boy when authorities declined to meet all of their demands, then “threatened to kill the other children one-by-one”, said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, quoting the deputy national police chief, Neth Savoeun.
Dozens of police stormed the school compound as the hostage-takers tried to flee in a van, but police intercepted the vehicle, smashing the windows and arresting them. Nearly 40 children, some as young as two, ran into the arms of their panic-stricken parents.
“I’m very relieved,” said Singaporean Tan Seok Ho, who rushed to the school when she heard about the crisis from a friend. Her youngest child Levon was among those taken and released unharmed. “I’m happy to have him back in my arms again.”
The crisis unfolded at Cambodia’s tourism hub of Siem Reap, near its famed Angkor temples and home to many expatriates, and quickly drew concern from governments around the region.
The town has many establishments serving the international tourist trade, and children from at least 15 nations attend the school.
The identity of the attackers was not clear, even after the stand-off ended. Prime Minister Hun Sen said they appeared to be security guards at the school, but police later said teachers did not recognise them.
The men originally took about 70 people, but later released 30 of them, Khieu Kanharith said.
They “were armed with shotguns” and had demanded money, six AK-47 assault rifles, six shotguns, grenade launchers, hand grenades and a car, said Deputy Military Police Commander Prak Chanthoeum, who said three teachers were among those seized.
He later said $30,000 (€24,700) and a van were given to the gunmen, but they still refused to free the hostages and continued to demand guns and grenades.
Police initially said there were six attackers, but later put the number at four and said all had been arrested. They said the hostage takers were 22 to 25 years old, and were from the south-eastern province of Kandal.
Denis Richer, a Frenchman who said he taught at another school in the booming tourist town, said he saw one of the attackers laying wounded on the ground after police ended the siege.
A western resident in Siem Reap said she was told by a teacher at the school that the children, most of them aged two to six, came from Cambodia, Ireland, Italy, Indonesia, South Korea, US, Japan, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Switzerland.
Khieu Kanharith described the boy who was shot as a three-year-old Canadian. Embassy officials could not immediately confirm that, but a witness who knew the child also identified him as Canadian.