- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

ATHENS — Two armed men who hijacked a public bus yesterday and threatened to blow it up surrendered today just after midnight and released their six remaining hostages, ending an 18-hour standoff.

The hijackers initially seized 26 hostages, but the bus driver, a ticket inspector and a passenger escaped almost immediately. During the day, the armed men gradually released 17 passengers.

Relatives of the hostages, who were waiting in a nearby supermarket, ran up and hugged them.

The last freed hostages left the bus from the driver’s door, and heavily armed police then searched the vehicle. The two hijackers, thought to be Albanians, left the bus with their hands on their heads after throwing two shotguns out the door.

It was not clear what caused the hijackers to surrender. None of the freed captives was harmed.

At one point during the standoff, a hijacker threatened to blow up the bus if authorities did not deliver a ransom of $1.33 million by dawn.

The hijackers were armed with two pump-action shotguns, which they were seen firing out of a bus window. It was not clear whether they had explosives.

They seized control of the intercity bus at 5:50 a.m. yesterday at a bus stop in the Athens suburb of Geraka, about 10 miles east of the city center.

Police praised the driver for his escape, which immobilized the bus and gave authorities control over the situation.

The hijackers initially demanded a new bus driver, saying they wanted to be taken to the airport and flown to Russia.

At first the two claimed to be Russian, but sources in the Athens prosecutor’s office said both men were Albanians with criminal records in Greece. The officials speculated the men tried to hide their identities by pretending to be of a different nationality.

They began releasing hostages in the early afternoon. Some looked dazed and confused as they staggered off the bus. One woman limped toward black-clad counterterrorist officers, who waved her to safety.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis delayed a trip to a European Union summit in Brussels to deal with the crisis, his spokesman said. A scheduled demonstration by Greece’s main workers union to protest the rising cost of living also was 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 also was the fifth time a bus has been hijacked since 1999.

The bus was on its way from the town of Marathon, east of Athens, to the city center. It was hijacked at a stop on a highway renovated for the Olympic Games and used for the marathon race, which follows a 26.2-mile course from ancient Marathon to central Athens.

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