Firing into the air, Russian commandos swarmed out of the night and onto a tour bus near the Kremlin early today, freeing four South Koreans and a Russian driver held hostage for 10 hours by a riflewielding assailant. The gunman died in the attack.
About 20 commandos attacked the bus before dawn, unleashing a barrage of gunfire and tossing stun grenades that exploded with searing flashes. Several commandos crawled aboard the bus through its windows.
The five freed men were hustled from the bus looking shaken and dazed. The Interfax news agency reported all remaining hostages were freed unhurt. Some 20 other hostages had been released in the hours before.
The dead gunman was Russian, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said. He gave no further details.
The gunman, who released most of the hostages unharmed in the hours before the raid, had demanded $1 million. The commando assault came after a bank truck arrived on the scene and authorities appeared to be preparing to pay the ransom.
The tourists had been visiting Red Square and the Kremlin, a heavily guarded area that houses the office of President Boris Yeltsin and is one of Russia’s main tourist attractions.
“If you told me such a thing could happen in the center of Moscow, I would never have believed it,” said one bystander, who would not give his name. “This is Red Square. It’s like a bad joke.”
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, the gunman seized the bus with some 25 South Korean tourists aboard Saturday evening. The bus then stood on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square while officials negotiated into the night.
The gunman had released up to 20 hostages in several groups, including all the women on the bus, until just five men were left, police said.
Passengers released earlier were rushed away by Russian officials and South Korean diplomats.
“They did not suffer, but they are in deep shock,” said a South Korean diplomat who refused to be named.
Interior Ministry spokesman Alexi Rudakov said the gunman initially demanded $10 million but later dropped the demand to $1 million. Initial reports had said the gunman was a North Korean.
In the hours leading up to the raid, dozens of heavily armed police and commandos ringed the bus, which was halted on a bridge over the Moscow River near the Kremlin and adjoining Red Square. Police snipers crouched on a Kremlin tower, and ambulances and fire trucks stood on alert nearby. The lights of Red Square illuminated the scene.
A gentle rain fell as police and government officials negotiated with the gunman, reported to be very nervous and wearing a ski mask.
The bus windows were covered by curtains, and there was no sign of activity inside until the commando raid. A large crowd of spectators had gathered at the scene, some of them cracking jokes and drinking.
The commandos staged their raid at 2:45 a.m., attacking just as the Kremlin chimes rang - an apparent signal to them, since the chimes do not usually ring after midnight to avoid awakening Muscovites.
The Russian media issued numerous contradictory reports during the episode. Russian television at one point reported that the bus was heading for the airport and gave the route, but the vehicle never moved.
The Interfax news agency reported the gunman was a North Korean, but police later discounted the report. South Korean diplomats at the scene insisted the gunman was Russian and his motive was not political.
There has been a rash of bus hijackings in recent months.