updated 2/7/2005 3:07:11 PM ET 2005-02-07T20:07:11

Swiss special forces stormed the Spanish Consulate on Monday to end a hostage standoff — but the three men who attacked the building in an apparent robbery had fled hours earlier and managed to elude authorities, police said.

Officers hunted for three, who spoke broken French and forced their way into the consulate, demanding that the staff open the safe, said police Maj. Peter Theilkaes.

Police from Switzerland’s diplomatic protection corps were on a routine patrol in the upscale Kirchenfeld neighborhood of the Swiss capital Monday morning when they raised the alarm after discovering a wounded man — one of the consulate’s drivers — outside the building.

Police set up a security cordon around the consulate. The buildup of masked SWAT teams and sharpshooters contrasted with the usually tranquil atmosphere in the diplomatic quarter.

The three masked assailants seized the consulate shortly before 8 a.m. (2 a.m. EST), Monday, taking three people hostage, but apparently left the building almost immediately and before police arrived, said Theilkaes, who led the police operation.

The consulate’s driver managed to escape soon after the holdup, police said. He was hospitalized with moderately serious knife wounds to the head.

The two other staff members were able to leave the building with police protection at about 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EST), city police said in a statement.

Building found to be empty
Special forces later stormed the consulate around 1:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EST) to bring an end to a standoff, but the suspects, who were armed with knives and a handgun, had left the building about six hours earlier, authorities said. No shots were fired.

“As soon as it was ascertained that no more consulate workers were in the building, the police checked the building and found it empty,” the statement said. “The assailants had already fled. From that, we conclude that the attack was of a criminal nature and did not have a political background.”

The assailants ordered the two other hostages, both consulate staff, to open a safe, but neither knew the combination, Spain’s Foreign Ministry said in Madrid. They then ordered the two employees, a man and a woman who were not identified, into a separate room, Spanish authorities said.

Police never establish contact with intruders
Neither the workers nor the police knew the intruders had left the building.

Police spokesman Juerg Mosimann said authorities never established contact with the men and didn’t know what they were demanding. Swiss and Spanish authorities gave no further information on their identities.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry said it has no evidence anything was stolen. The safe that the men tried to open contained money, passports and visas, said spokesman Angel Vazquez.

“From the outset the assailants were interested in the safe,” Vazquez said. “The contents of the safe are secure.”

There have been a handful of previous security crises at foreign embassies and consulates in Switzerland, notably in 1999.

In February 1999, members of Switzerland’s Kurdish community staged a daylong, peaceful occupation of the Greek Embassy in Bern, as well as the Greek consulate in Zurich and United Nations offices in Geneva. They were protesting Greece’s help in the capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan and his handover to Turkey.

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