MANILA (Reuters) - Gunmen freed dozens of children and three teachers held hostage for over nine hours in a bus in the Philippine capital on Wednesday and then surrendered without violence.
Scores of onlookers lit candles outside the bus, parked in front of Manila City Hall, just before 7 p.m. (noon British time), the time the hostage-takers had said they would surrender.
A minute after the deadline, the door of the bus opened and children, many carrying school bags and toys, were lifted and handed over to waiting policemen, live television showed.
Onlookers cheered and many said they sympathised with the hostage-takers, one of whom said he wanted to highlight corruption in the Philippines and the lack of educational opportunities for poor children.
One man from within the bus handed over what appeared to be two grenades to a negotiator. He and another man also believed to be a hostage-taker were whisked away in police vehicles.
"Everybody helped in resolving this crisis," said Luis Singson, governor of the province of Ilocos Sur who was drafted in to help negotiate an end to the crisis. "I was a former police chief so I am used to this situation."
Reports during the day said 32 children and two teachers were on the bus when it was seized, but these turned out to be incorrect. Only 26 children and three teachers were on board at the end.
One child who had a fever was freed earlier in the day.
"The children were all okay," Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said after they were examined in hospital. "Many of the children went to the toilet as soon as they arrived."
A man identified as Jun Ducat, accompanied by at least one other man and believed to be armed with grenades, an Uzi submachine gun and a revolver, had been holding the children, all aged between four and six.
The children and the teachers were from a day-care centre that Ducat is believed to have founded three years ago. They had just set out for a day trip to a nearby town when the bus was seized.
The bus was parked outside Manila City Hall from 9:30 a.m. and surrounded by elite police teams and thousands of onlookers.
Ducat said he would surrender if he was promised that 145 children at the day-care centre in the capital's poor suburb of Tondo were provided with education, television reports said.
He also demanded to be allowed to speak on television and he was handed a mobile telephone patched on to local networks.
"I am so sorry I took these children in a violent action to call the attention of the Filipino people to open their minds to the political reality," Ducat said.
"There's so much corruption in the country. We're number one in Asia in corruption," he said in a speech which lasted for at least 15 minutes.
"Don't rely on the politicians for your future. No one can help you but yourselves," he added.
Some parents sympathised with Ducat.
"I know him as a very good man. I know he will not harm my six-year-old daughter," said Jojo Abuyan, the father of a young girl on the bus.
He said Ducat was just airing feelings that were shared by most of the residents in the Tondo area.
But Marilyn Rontali, the mother of a six-year-old boy on the bus, said: "Thank God, it's over. I was so worried the whole day and you could not blame us if we feel some anger against him.
"We know him as a good man so we're surprised he did this thing to our children."
Although the drama dragged on for hours and the bus was parked in the open under a harsh sun, the children did not seem to be in obvious discomfort, even at the end.
Ducat was probably the man of the same name who took two priests hostage in the late 1980s after a dispute over building a church, television reports said. In that incident, the weapons used turned out later to be fake and no one was harmed.
According to other reports, he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2001.
(Additional reporting by Dolly Aglay)