NEWS

Olympic Games training pays off

Security experts yesterday hailed as a textbook operation Greece’s Olympic Games-inspired handling of a bus hijack that ended with all hostages safely freed and the surrender of the two Albanian gunmen. While police officials and government ministers have heaped praise on their security forces since the end of the 18-hour hostage drama on the Marathon-Athens bus that finished without a shot being fired, experts highlighted their Olympic training. «What this operation proved is that security authorities knew what they were doing,» Charles Heyman, senior defense analyst at Jane’s Consultancy Group, told Reuters. «These guys must have been very well trained.» From the moment the gunmen entered the bus early on Wednesday until their final surrender, Greek security forces, who in the past have spectacularly failed to rise to the occasion, did everything by the book. A group of five negotiators was on the spot soon after the bus was taken over, as police kept the media at bay and managed and controlled their communication with the hostages. «In any such situation, the negotiators are absolutely vital. «They are the key to success because disaster is only three, four seconds away,» Heyman said. «A lot of these people owe them their lives.» In a bus hijacking by an Albanian gunman five years ago, Greek police paid a ransom through the bus window amid a crowd of reporters, allowed the bus to cross the border to Albania and then watched helplessly as Albanian security forces killed the hijacker and, by accident, one of the passengers. But this time, police and negotiators who took part in the operation had undergone rigorous training. «They took part in several large-scale Olympic security drills with exactly such scenarios apart from their normal training. But yesterday was their crash test and they passed with flying colours,» a police official said. Greece spent a record 1 billion euros on security for the Athens Games, the first Summer Olympics since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. This included not only the training of armed forces but also of civilians. Among those who were trained ahead of the Games was the bus driver, credited with giving authorities a huge advantage when he leaped out of the vehicle and forced it to stop in the middle of the highway. «Negotiating with hostage-takers on a moving vehicle is a completely different story than negotiating with them if the bus is stopped and surrounded by police,» the police official said. Together with 1,200 other bus drivers from across the country, Chrysostomos Mitsou did a three-day security course ahead of the Games. Israeli and US experts gave them basic guidelines in case of such an event. Mitsou reacted quickly when the gunmen pulled out their hunting rifles. He opened all doors, jumped out as the vehicle stopped, and alerted police. Within minutes the bus was surrounded and negotiations had started. «This operation sends a message to those who may be considering doing something similar,» Heyman said. «That Athens may not be a good place to do it. Athens has been thought of as a place where you could get away with it, but not anymore.» Hostages describe hijackers as ‘vulnerable,’ complain of media interference Following an ordeal that, for the last six bus passengers to be released, lasted 19 hours, all 23 hostages were safely reunited with their families yesterday. The two 24-year-old Albanian housepainters who hijacked the Athens-bound bus at 5.50 a.m. in Gerakas, on the capital’s eastern fringes, demanding a 1-million-euro ransom, appeared as a considerably naive, malleable pair, according to passengers’ accounts yesterday. «When they pulled out the shotguns, we were all terrified,» said Giorgos Vassilas, one of the last hostages to exit the bus together with the two gunmen at 12.40 a.m. yesterday. After the bus driver and the conductor made a quick escape at the start of the hijacking, the gunmen were at a loss. «The one hijacker stuck a gun to my forehead and said, ‘Drive!’ I told him I didn’t know how to, and they didn’t insist,» Vassilas said. «As time passed, we gradually developed a better relationship and they slowly became more flexible.» Katerina Tsernaki said the situation deteriorated whenever the hijackers spoke live to TV or radio journalists – a complaint reiterated by senior police officers. «We kept talking to them, trying to calm them down,» Tsernaki said. «But the media agitated them, and then we had our work cut to restore them to a tranquil frame of mind.» Stella Matara described the two as «vulnerable.» «They didn’t hurt any of us. At the very end, I offered to throw the guns out for them, so that they wouldn’t have to get out first.» Eight of the passengers were immigrants, including two Albanians who told journalists yesterday that they felt mortified. «I feel ashamed that the hijackers were Albanians,» Sretim Goksai said. «I truly feel the need to apologize to all Greeks.» Apart from one woman who was taken to hospital in a state of shock, all the hostages spent the night in a Nea Makri hotel, where police had started taking them as they were gradually released. This was seen as necessary so as to prevent vital information that could harm the remaining hostages from leaking to the gunmen through the media. (Kathimerini)