COLOGNE, Germany — A masked man armed with a high-caliber weapon staged a bloody hijacking of a sightseeing bus Friday that ended with three people dead, intensifying concerns about security in European cities at the height of the summer tourist season.
After seven hours, police commandos--armed with iron bars, flares and guns--stormed the bus late in the afternoon, killing the gunman. As of Friday evening, police were identifying him only as an Israeli citizen of Russian origin.
One hostage was also found dead on the bus, which had carried two dozen German and foreign tourists. In a news conference, police said she was a 60-year-old German woman who they believed was shot by the hijacker just before the vehicle was stormed.
The gunman also fatally shot the bus's 26-year-old driver near the start of the incident and wounded at least one other hostage, as well as an approaching police officer who was shot in the stomach. The officer was in serious condition after emergency surgery but was expected to survive.
Police said four Americans, whose names were not given, were among the hostages; none of the Americans were injured.
Friday's terror in Cologne, Germany's fourth-largest city, came at the end of a week of anxiety in Europe, after a powerful bomb went off on a Parisian subway train during the Monday afternoon rush hour, killing seven and wounding dozens more, some critically. The French underground train was bombed at the Saint-Michel station, a major transit point underneath one of Paris' most beloved tourist neighborhoods.
French authorities have still not identified the terrorists believed to be behind the bombing, but there have been indications that Islamic militants from Algeria are the prime suspects.
The blast in Paris triggered a wave of bomb threats and evacuations of public areas in Europe.
In Cologne, the main train station--one of the largest in Germany--was evacuated Thursday after a telephone bomb threat. Investigators could find no trace of any explosive device.
Cologne, with its famous, soaring cathedral, is visited by about 160,000 foreign and German tourists a year, and the city transportation department said Friday that about 20,000 of them take sightseeing tours aboard buses like the one that was hijacked. The trips start at the foot of the cathedral and last about two hours. No attempt is made to monitor who boards the buses.
During a news conference shortly after the bus was stormed, police were unable to reveal much about the hijacker or his motives.
Winrich Granitzka, leader of Friday's police operation, said only that the hijacker spoke extremely poor German and English that was only slightly better and that he made some perplexing remarks about the "Russian mafia."
Asked by reporters what specific demands the hijacker had made, Granitzka said, "He asked for this and that," including a translator whose mother tongue was Russian and a new radiophone after the one he was using stopped working.
"I imagine that later, demands in the political area would have been made," Granitzka said.
Granitzka called the attack "brutal" and said the style "showed that everything had been planned." The hijacker brought along lots of tape to tie up and blindfold his hostages, he said, and had wired what appeared to be sticks of dynamite to his chest. At one point during the ordeal, Granitzka said, the hijacker pulled up his shirt and showed the apparent explosives, threatening to blow up the bus.
After the hijacking ended, authorities learned that the "dynamite" was fake.
The ill-fated tour began normally Friday morning, with 21 adults and three children riding through the streets of Cologne's scenic downtown. Police said the four Americans on board were two women, ages 53 and 58, and two men, 65 and 67. They also said there was one Turk, one other Israeli, an Argentine, two Japanese and several Austrians. The hostages ranged in age from 11 to 73.
The tour turned nightmarish when the bus stopped at the city's trade exhibition center, which commands an attractive view of the Rhine River. A 34-year-old German woman who managed to escape early in the incident--by bolting when the hijacker asked her to get off the bus and bring him his luggage from a compartment underneath--told police that the gunman began arguing with the driver at the exhibition center, then shot him.
He then pulled on a mask, closed the curtains of the bus and opened fire on the first police car to arrive at the scene.
Hundreds of police quickly sealed off a large area of the downtown, positioning green and bright orange squad cars and rescue vehicles with flashing lights around the area.
It was then more than two hours before the police made contact with the hijacker, who issued his vague demands. As police stalled for time, three other hostages, including a 15-year-old youth, escaped one by one, by crawling out of the bus windows.
Police said that at 5:25, they heard the hijacker shouting that he had killed another hostage but were unable to see anything. Not long after, they said, a man with a bullet wound in his shoulder, still alive although his clothing was soaked with blood, came hurtling out of the broken rear window of the bus.
They then heard the hijacker screaming, "If you don't come back, I'll kill your wife!"
The police then made the decision to storm the bus, something they had not wanted to do because they still thought the suspect capable of blowing up the vehicle.