IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

2 Albanians charged in Athens bus hijacking

Two Albanian immigrants were charged Thursday with multiple counts of kidnapping and attempted murder following an 18-hour bus hijacking and hostage drama that ended peacefully, and the government appealed for Greeks not to strike back at foreigners.
Leonard Murati, right, and Gaz Resuli, second left, are escorted outside Greek police headquarters in Athens on Thursday.Eurokinissi / AP
/ Source: news services

Two Albanian immigrants were charged Thursday with multiple counts of kidnapping and attempted murder following an 18-hour bus hijacking and hostage drama that ended peacefully, and the government appealed for Greeks not to strike back at foreigners.

A crowd outside Athens police headquarters jeered as the two 24-year-old Albanians, Gaz Resuli and Leonard Murati, went before a prosecutor. Both are housepainters who have lived in Greece for seven years.

The two are accused of using shotguns to hijack a long-distance bus with 26 passengers on board shortly before dawn Wednesday. The gunmen claimed to have explosives and threatened to blow it up if authorities did not pay a ransom of $1.3 million and provide them with safe passage out of Greece.

They were jailed without bond pending an arraignment Monday.

Government seeks to defuse any backlash
The government sought to defuse any backlash against immigrants in Greece, which has become home in the past decade to more than 1 million foreigners, most from neighboring Albania. Immigrants make up 10 percent of the Greek population.

“The fact that two immigrants were the perpetrators of this incident we faced should not in any way affect our views and behavior,” Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said. “We are after all an open, democratic and progressive society without prejudices.”

The Albanian government asked Greeks not to pass judgment on the hundreds of thousands of their citizens living and working in this country.

“Albania’s Foreign Ministry is convinced that such acts do not identify with the Albanian citizens who live and work honestly in Greece, contribute to Greek society and strengthen bilateral relations,” an announcement said.

A spokesman for the Albanian Workers Union in Greece, Lefter Martar, urged Greeks to show understanding.

“These criminals don’t represent hardworking Albanians and their families that live in Greece, and I’m calling on the media and other authorities not to blame the Albanians for all the crime that is being committed,” Martar said.

Calls for deportation of immigrants
The appeals came as some Greek political groups, mostly on the extreme right, demanded the government expel immigrants.

“We want a Greece for Greeks and not a multicultural country,” said a flier scattered by the Greek Front party at the site where the bus was seized.

The party has blamed rising crime on immigrants and has called on the government to stop granting residence and work permit to foreigners.

“We need an operation to sweep them all up now,” the Athens daily Avriani said in a banner headline referring to immigrants. “Thousands of criminals from Albania and the Balkans are roaming freely.”

Albanians living in Greece are widely perceived as having contributed to a rise in crime, despite official statistics showing that they and other immigrants were only responsible for one in eight of all crimes committed in 2003.

“There is nothing statistically to justify the link between immigrants and crime,” said Ioannis Panousis, a professor of criminology at the University of Athens. “Out of 20 crimes that take place, 19 are committed by Greeks.”

But relations between the two communities have become increasingly tense.

In September, an Albanian soccer fan was killed and more than a dozen people were injured after Albania beat Greece in a World Cup qualifying game.

Wednesday’s armed standoff also marked the third time Albanian gunmen were involved in a bus hijacking in the past five years.

In 1999, an Albanian seized a bus full of Greek passengers and forced it to drive into Albania, where Albanian police killed the hijacker and a passenger in a botched raid. Police killed another Albanian who hijacked a bus a few months later.

Victory for Games training
On Thursday, Greek officials said that training security forces received in protecting last August’s Athens Olympic Games and phone calls to the gunmen from their relatives urging them to give themselves up played key roles in ending the drama.

Hostages portrayed the gunmen who kept them captive for 18 hours as angry young men whose sole motive was money and who finally caved in after phone calls to the bus from relatives.

Negotiators had spoken with the gunmen throughout the day convincing them to release hostages in twos or threes until only six were still left on the bus.

At that stage, the gunmen set an 8 a.m. (1 a.m. ET) Thursday deadline for their demands to be met and vowed not to release any more hostages.

But about four hours after setting the deadline, the bus doors opened without warning and the remaining captives walked to freedom.

Seconds later the gunmen also got off the bus with their hands behind their heads.