HIROSHIMA – About 15 riot policemen stormed a hijacked bus early Thursday in Hiroshima Prefecture, arresting the 17-year-old youth who had commandeered the vehicle and releasing the driver and the nine remaining passengers, including a 6-year-old girl he had been holding at knife-point.
The storming of the bus at 5:03 a.m. came more than 15 hours after the youth, wielding a large kitchen knife, had taken control of the intercity bus in Kyushu.
The bus traveled about 300 km before reaching the site of Thursday’s dramatic rescue, the Kodani service area off the Sanyo Expressway in Higashi-Hiroshima.
One woman was killed and four others were injured during the hijacking and another passenger and a police officer sustained minor injuries from glass broken during the rescue operation.
The officers immediately took Yuki Ishibashi, the girl who was being held at knifepoint, out of the bus through a window they had smashed to gain entrance. They then assisted the remaining passengers — all women.
Police launched their assault with smoke bombs and stun grenades to disorient the hijacker when he momentarily moved away from the girl, according to police. The girl had been making her first bus trip alone, to visit her grandmother during Golden Week.
Police said the hijacker, an unemployed youth from Saga, suffers from mental illness. His name is being withheld under the Juvenile Law. He was hospitalized two months ago after barricading himself inside his home with a knife, but had been allowed to return home for one day on Wednesday, they said.
After being released from the mental institution in Saga on Wednesday morning, the suspect returned home before disappearing around noon, his family said.
The chief of the mental institution declined to comment specifically about the suspect’s condition, saying police had instructed him not to reveal that information. Neither would he explain why the boy had been released on Wednesday.
Police arrested the youth at 5:05 a.m. for violating the Firearm and Sword Control Law and the Law for the Punishment of Extortion Involving Hostage-Taking.
Violation of the 1978 hostage-taking law carries the death penalty or life imprisonment if the violator kills a hostage. Mentally ill culprits, however, are less likely to be indicted.
The hijacker, taken to Saijo Police Station near the service area, identified himself when questioned by officers, but refused to give a motive for the hijacking, according to police. The teenager had demanded a handgun, a bulletproof vest, cash and that the bus be driven to Tokyo.
People close to the suspect said the boy had been bullied by his classmates during junior high school. He entered a local high school in April 1998, but rarely attended before dropping out entirely about a year ago. Recently, he had been violent to family members, they added.
Prior to the release of the 57-year-old driver, Tadashi Hirano, and the nine remaining passengers, 12 others had escaped or were released during the 15-hour ordeal. One of them, Tatsuko Tsukamoto, 68, died from blood loss after sustaining knife injuries to her neck.
Police negotiated with the hijacker for a total of 11 hours as they weighed the timing of their operation. The hijacker’s mother had been brought to the scene in an effort to persuade the youth to surrender but she felt unable to do so and did not speak to him, according to police.
The bus was hijacked about 40 minutes after it left Saga at 12:56 p.m. with 21 passengers on board for a 70-minute drive to Fukuoka. The bus is operated by Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., or Nishitetsu.
Police were informed of the hijack at 2:47 p.m. when one passenger managed to escape from the bus in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, and reported the incident to the Japan Highway Public Corp. on an emergency highway telephone.
The passenger, a 40-year-old woman, had told the hijacker she needed to use a bathroom. He let her off the bus and she then fled.
During a police chase before the bus was halted, initially at the Okuya parking area in Higashi-Hiroshima, Mikiko Matsuno, a 30-year-old nurse from Saga Prefecture, jumped from the bus, breaking her right leg.
Masayuki Kishikawa, a 52-year-old male company employee from Saga, jumped from the bus at around 4:20 p.m., suffering minor injuries.
The suspect released the remaining four male passengers in a tunnel in Hiroshima shortly before the bus was stopped in the Okuya parking lot at 5:50 p.m.
During the chase, the hijacker called police seven times using a mobile telephone. He said he had a girl hostage and demanded that they provide a gun when he stopped at the Kibi service area in Okayama, east of Hiroshima Prefecture.
The bus was halted for nearly four hours at the Okuya parking area before it rejoined the expressway at around 9:35 p.m. and arrived some 30 minutes later at Kodani, where police continued to urge the hijacker to surrender.
Tsukamoto was pronounced dead at a Hiroshima hospital shortly after she was released from the bus at the Okuya parking area. The woman was already unconscious from loss of blood when she was rushed to the hospital.
Two other female passengers, aged 34 and 50, were stabbed by the teenager but their injuries were not critical. They were also released from the bus at the Okuya rest area and were receiving treatment.
The suspect reportedly smiled as he stabbed the victims and used a passenger’s camera to photograph the injured, the hostages said.
At Kodani, the suspect released a 72-year-old woman at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and a 52-year-old woman two hours later. Police told the press that the hijacker offered to release the elderly hostages in return for the bus being refueled at the service area.
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