Children played with dolls, ate ice cream during hostage crisis in the Philippines

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The crisis ended after 10 hours when Jun Ducat, 56, released the children and surrendered.

MANILA, Philippines -- A young girl waved a Barbie doll in the air while a boy licked an ice cream cone. Another girl casually finished a bottle of water while chatting with a classmate.

Dozens of children were taken hostage on a bus Wednesday by a day-care center owner armed with grenades and guns, but the youngsters took the ordeal in stride, eating pizza, smiling and waving from the windows throughout the day.

The crisis ended after 10 hours when 56-year-old civil engineer Jun Ducat, who staged the incident to denounce corruption and demand better lives for impoverished children, released the children, put the pin back in a grenade and surrendered to police.

Jubilant parents were quickly reunited with their children as they filed off the bus clutching dolls, toys and backpacks. Ducat was led to a waiting police car and driven away.

"I was afraid all day that the grenade may explode," said Gerome Agabon, father of 5-year-old hostage Joanne.

Manila police district chief Danilo Abarzosa said Ducat would be charged with 32 counts of illegal detention and abduction -- each count is punishable by up to 12 years in prison -- along with illegal possession of explosives and firearms.

"I accept that I should be jailed because what I did was against the law," Ducat said shortly before the standoff ended.

The excited students thought they were going on a field trip when they boarded the bus early Wednesday. Instead, Ducat had the driver take them to city hall, where a handwritten sheet of paper was taped to the windshield that said he was holding 32 children and two teachers and was armed with two grenades, an assault rifle and a .45-caliber pistol.

Bus driver Deogracias Bugarin said they had loaded up with bottled water and eaten breakfast at a fast-food restaurant. Ducat said he brought along three chamber pots for use as toilets.

Housewife Shiela Malabo was relieved when her 6-year-old son Fred appeared at a bus window and waved to her. She waved back frantically and gestured with her hands to ask if he had eaten.

Fred responded by raising an empty box from a popular hamburger chain.

"When I was walking him into the bus, I told him to behave and not be unruly," Malabo said as she sat waiting with other worried parents. "This excursion was postponed twice and he was really very excited to go."

Jasmine Agabon said her 5-year-old daughter Joanne thought they were going swimming, so she had worn her bathing suit underneath her school uniform that morning.

"I cried in our house when I found out about the hostage-taking," Agabon said. "I don't know how to feel. Mr. Ducat was good. He helped people in our slum get jobs. He helped our children get good education.

Ducat, who has staged attention-grabbing stunts in the past, made a long statement through a wireless microphone while the youngsters chanted his name. He railed against the failure of politicians in the Philippines to make good on promises to provide free education and housing for the poor, and called corruption in the country the worst in Asia.

"I love these kids; that's why I am here," Ducat told DZMM radio by mobile phone shortly after the incident began. "You can be assured that I cannot hurt the children."

White candles had been lit at Ducat's request and placed in yellow cups under the police tape used to cordon off the area. Police and other officials also held candles outside the bus, as did people in the crowd that went to watch the situation unfold.

"Let the candles be a warning," Ducat said. "If the promises remain unfulfilled, you will see those candles again."

Parents at the scene, although afraid for their children, expressed sympathy for Ducat's demands and had kind words for his work in their slum, particularly the free day-care center he founded where he pays the teachers' salaries.

As he was led away, dozens of slum-dwellers yelled his name like a hero.

Ducat was involved in a previous hostage-taking in 1989 involving two priests, but no charges were filed, police said.

He was disqualified as a congressional candidate in 2001 for unspecified reasons. He once protested high rice prices by personally pulling a wagon loaded with sacks of rice about 60 miles to Manila. In 1998, he climbed a tower to protest against the candidacy of a politician who he said was not a real Filipino citizen.

"I know him as a very, very passionate individual who has his own kind of thinking on the solutions to our problems," Manila Mayor Lito Atienza said. "But we cannot agree with his ways."

Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano, Hrvoje Hranjski, Oliver Teves and Paul Alexander contributed to this report.

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