SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Masked gunmen seized dozens of children at an international school Thursday in northwestern Cambodia (search), killing a 3-year-old Canadian boy with a shot to the head before police rescued the hostages, authorities said.
The four attackers stormed Siem Reap International School (search), grabbed students from several countries, and demanded money, weapons and a vehicle before police ended the six-hour standoff and took four young gunmen into custody.
Gunfire broke out inside the school, and hostage takers later told police they killed the Canadian boy because he was crying too much. Police moved in after they "threatened to kill the other children one by one," Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said.
Authorities said they managed to talk the attackers out of the building after giving them a minivan and $30,000 in cash. When the men got into the vehicle with four children, security forces closed the gate to the school compound and launched an assault, yanking the men from the van.
Nearly 40 children, some as young as 2, rushed past the school gate and into the arms of their panic-stricken parents.
"I'm very relieved," said Tan Seok Ho of Singapore, who rushed to the school when she heard about the crisis. Her youngest child, Lyvong, 3, was among those released unharmed. "I'm happy to have him back in my arms again," she said.
Some parents, meanwhile, grabbed three of the hostage-takers from police and began beating and kicking them, said Prak Chanthoeun, the military commander. "We could barely control the angry crowd," he said.
The crisis unfolded at Cambodia's tourism hub of Siem Reap (search), home to the famed 9th-14th century ancient temple complex, and quickly drew concern from governments around the region. The town has many establishments serving the international tourist trade, which earns millions of dollars annually for the cash-strapped government.
Children from at least 15 nations — including the United States — attend the school.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the yellow schoolhouse during the tense standoff, and three armored personnel carriers were parked on the road.
The identity of the attackers was unclear, even after the standoff ended. Prime Minister Hun Sen (search) said they appeared to be security guards at the school, but police later said teachers did not recognize them.
The men originally took about 70 people but later released 30 of them, Khieu Kanharith said.
They "were armed with shotguns" and demanded money, six AK-47 assault rifles, six shotguns, grenade launchers, hand grenades and a car, said Deputy Military Police Commander Prak Chanthoeum, who said three teachers were among those seized.
Denis Richer, a Frenchman who teaches at another school in Siem Reap, said he tried to comfort the father of the young boy who died. "He was completely lost. He asked me to look for his wife, which I did. I found an ambulance to bring the couple to the clinic."
Police initially said there were six attackers, but later put the number at four. They said the hostage takers were 22 to 25 years old, and were from the southeastern province of Kandal. Witnesses said one of the attackers lay wounded on the ground after the siege had ended.
The children, most of them aged 2 to 6, come from a variety of countries, including the United States, Italy, Japan, Britain and Australia.
Khieu Kanharith described the boy who was shot as a 3-year-old Canadian. Embassy officials could not immediately confirm that, but a witness who knew the child also identified him as Canadian.