Child hostages freed from French school

A 17-year-old has been detained by masked French gendarmes after a class of preschoolers was taken hostage and released safely following hours of tense negotiations.

Teen detained in Besancon after incident at Charles Fourier preschool

A 17-year-old was detained by masked French gendarmes after a class of preschoolers was taken hostage Monday and released safely following hours of tense negotiations that drew nationwide attention.

Relatives of children and onlookers react outside a school during a hostage-taking in Besancon, eastern France, on Monday. ((Str/Associated Press))

"The hostage-taking is over," Jean-Marc Magda, aide to the mayor of the eastern French city of Besancon, told The Associated Press by telephone.

The incident took place at the Charles Fourier preschool in Planoise, a neighbourhood of housing projects with a big immigrant population on the western edge of Besancon.

All 20 children and their teacher were released safely, Magda said.

The teen was detained, and remained inside the school with officers, Magda said.

French television showed a wide-eyed girl being draped with a green blanket and carried away from the school. Police and worried families had surrounded the school since early in the day.

The reason for the hostage-taking was unclear.

Besancon Mayor Jean-Louis Fousseret said the teen had been treated for depression, but had not taken his medication in recent days. The mayor did not confirm reports that the youth had requested a gun to kill himself.

Initially, the hostage-taking involved 20 children, but throughout the morning, 14 were released, including one who "more or less escaped," said Fousseret.

Five or six children and the teacher were believed to be still in the preschool when the officers entered around lunchtime, Fousseret said on i-tele television.

The masked gendarmes pointed their firearms at the school's windows and doors as they entered, French TV showed.

They were in contact by telephone with the hostage-taker before the last group of children was released.

Students in nearby school stay inside

Families huddled around the school in the intense cold. Emergency workers draped a blanket over one woman's shoulders as she wept, the i-tele television images showed.

The hostage-taker did not threaten the children and allowed them to go to the bathroom throughout the ordeal, Education Minister Luc Chatel said from the scene.

At the adjacent elementary school, pupils remained inside while the events unfolded.

"It's a bit traumatizing. ... We are just across from where everything is happening," principal Alain Lietta told The Associated Press. The schools' entrances are about 60 metres apart. Normally some children go home at lunch, but "today, this poses a problem," he said.

He said the children in the elementary school were informed about the situation. "We wanted to give them a maximum of honesty and clarity so as not to scare them."

Chatel arrived at the preschool and spoke with the families.

President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the "happy ending" to the hostage-taking.

In a statement, he expressed support for the teacher taken hostage and the school personnel, and praised the "sang-froid, professionalism and determination" of the police and gendarmes who helped free the children.