Gunmen take over bus with 32 children demanding free education for poor kids

Gunmen hijacked a busload of day-care students and teachers and drove them to Manila's city hall Wednesday to demand better housing and education for the children.

The hostage-takers scribbled in large letters on a sheet of paper, taped to the bus' windshield, that they were holding 32 children and two teachers and were armed with two grenades, an assault rifle and a pistol, officer Mark Andal said.

They said they were demanding improved housing and education for 145 children in a day-care center in Manila's poor Tondo district where the incident, televised live around the world, appeared to have begun.

"I love these kids; that's why I am here," one of the hostage-takers, identifying himself as Jun Ducat, told DZMM radio by cell phone. "We have a field trip. I invited the children for a field trip.

"You can be assured that I cannot hurt the children. In case I need to shed blood, I will not be the first to fire. I am telling the policemen, have pity on these children."

A standoff mounted as dozens of police surrounded the bus near Manila's City Hall. TV footage showed the young children, one in sunglasses, waving from the windows. A woman with her arm around a child could be seen making a hand signal asking for a phone as one of the gunmen held a grenade at her shoulder.

The woman reassuringly massaged the shoulders of one boy as she walked away from the front of the bus and the curtains were pulled shut. The children were allowed to wave again later, apparently to show they were OK, before the curtains were closed again.

Mothers of some hostages went on radio to tearfully appeal for their children's safety, the AP reports.

The children, between the ages of four and six, were being taken on a tour of Manila and a nearby town. Although the drama dragged on for hours and the bus was parked in the open under a harsh sun, they did not seem to be in discomfort.

Television showed the children waving when curtains on the bus windows were pulled aside.

Scores of elite police surrounded the vehicle and held negotiations while thousands of people watched from a distance.

A local politician, Senator Ramon Revilla, entered the bus to talk with the gunmen, and returned around 30 minutes later with hopes but no signs of progress.

"He has some demands and I already gave him an assurance that I would guarantee the education of the children," Revilla told reporters.

"He has requested more time and he would come out with the children. I am asking the police not to make any move that would agitate him."

Ducat was probably the man of the same name who took two priests hostage in the late 1980s after a dispute over building a church, television reports said. In that incident, the weapons used turned out later to be fake and no one was harmed, Reuters reports.

Officials of Manila City are now talking to the hostage-takers who are also inside the bus and officials of the Department of Education were reportedly on their way to talk to the hostage-takers.

The bus driver who was forced out of the bus said the hostage-takers "appeared fully prepared" for their action.

The bus was surrounded by members of the Philippine National Police's Special Weapons and Tactics team at the Bonifacio shrine near the Manila City Hall compound, where traffic has been sealed off and the surrounding roads were blocked by vehicles.

Police were tipped off that an ongoing robbery was taking place at around 9:30 a.m. local time (0130 GMT) and an alert was issued to their mobile units.

It is not known whether the hostage-taking has anything to do with the race for Manila mayor with two candidates competing for the seat in the May 14 poll.

The son of the incumbent Manila mayor and a former Manila mayor and police chief are running for the City Hall, Xinhua reports.

Source: agencies

Prepared by Alexander Timoshik

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Author`s name Alex Naumov