A man who took a busload of children and teachers hostage from his day-care center in Manila on Wednesday freed them after a 10-hour standoff that he used to denounce corruption and demand better lives for impoverished children.
Clutching dolls and backpacks, the children began filing off the bus shortly after 7 p.m. (0600 GMT), as Jun Ducat had promised in a rambling message delivered via a loudspeaker hours earlier.
Ducat, a 56-year-old civil engineer who has staged other attention-grabbing stunts in the past, then put the pin back in a grenade, handed it to a provincial governor and surrendered.
The incident dragged on for more than ten hours before the children were released. It virtually shut down the capital's main office building, drew thousands of onlookers and was beamed live around the world — drawing the type of media coverage that Jun Ducat clearly wanted with midterm elections scheduled for May.
The former contractor, who founded the Musmos Day Care Center about four years ago in Manila's Tondo slum district, reportedly chartered the tourist bus for a field trip marking the end of the school year.
Instead, he and at least one other hostage-taker had the driver take them to city hall, where they taped a handwritten sheet of paper to the windshield, saying they were holding 32 children and two teachers and were armed with two grenades, an Uzi assault rifle and a .45-caliber pistol.
The driver was released soon afterward. A child with a fever was freed after four hours and driven away in an ambulance.
"I love these kids; that's why I am here," Ducat, identified by police and parents as the owner of the 145-student day-care center, told DZMM radio by mobile phone. "I invited the children for a field trip.
"You can be assured that I cannot hurt the children. In case I need to shed blood, I will not be the first to fire. I am telling the policemen, have pity on these children."
Police surrounded the bus, its emergency lights flashing. Black-clad bomb squads and SWAT teams watched from behind a nearby monument. Ambulances, fire trucks and crisis teams from the Social Welfare Department stood on standby.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's office monitored the incident closely.
"I am happy for his concern even if what he is doing is against the law," Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said of Ducat. "I am appealing to him not to do anything violent and he can be assured that the police will not do anything that will trigger violence."
TV footage showed the kindergarten-age children waving from the windows, apparently to show they were OK, before the curtains were closed.
Mothers of some hostages went on radio to tearfully appeal for their children's safety.
"We are asking him to free the children, to let our kids out," said Gemma Arroyo, 29, mother of 6-year-old hostage Angelica. "We will forgive him if he will free our children. We have no ill feelings toward him. He is a good person."
Ducat said the hostage-taking was for the children's benefit.
"I am asking for justice so they can have continued education up to college," Ducat said.
Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral talked with Ducat and offered assurances that the children would get a good education.
Sen. Bong Revilla, who said he knows Ducat, was allowed to board the bus for negotiations. Some were broadcast live on radio, the sounds of the kids playing and talking in the background.
Revilla later emerged and said Ducat was holding a grenade with the pin pulled out, his hands shaking.
About 5-1/2 hours after the standoff began, a man who was believed to be Ducat — surrounded by children in what appeared to be an effort to use them as shields — started to try to drive the bus away but was blocked by two fire trucks.
With the children chanting his name, Ducat was given a wireless microphone and allowed to make a rambling statement in which he railed against corruption and politicians' failure to make good on promises of free education and housing for the poor.
The engine of the purple-and-gray bus continued to run, providing air conditioning as midday temperatures reached 93 degrees.
Ducat was involved in a previous hostage-taking in 1989 involving two priests in which he used fake grenades, officials said. No charges were filed. Revilla said he had no doubt that the grenade this time was real.
Ducat was disqualified as a congressional candidate in 2001 for unspecified reasons. He once protested against high rice prices by 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."