Thursday, March 10, 2005

Nine killed in thwarted bank robbery

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- Police stormed a bank in a hail of gunfire Wednesday after a thwarted robbery that turned into a 30-hour hostage standoff in this Costa Rican tourist town. Officials said nine people were killed, including five bank customers.

After hours of negotiations, the final surviving suspect, Erly Hurtado Martinez, surrendered to police and released the last hostage.

Security Minister Rogelio Ramos said Thursday that Hurtado, a native of Nicaragua, apparently had been accompanied by two brothers, a Costa Rican man and a fifth person who fled the scene when the attempted bank robbery collapsed.

"The only thing left now is facing justice," Ramos told local television stations, which broadcast the final moments of the standoff live.

Ramos said three suspected robbers, one police agent and five customers were killed. The customers were all shot dead inside the bank and two of the assailants were killed in the street by guards at the start of the robbery. The third robber died when police stormed the bank.

The policeman killed was 44-year-old Oscar Quesada, a special agent who had previously served as a member of the presidential security team, Ramos said.

The gunmen initially held about 20 people hostage, but 16 escaped or were released.

After the robbery was thwarted and the hostages taken, the gunmen demanded $43,000 and a vehicle for the safe release of the hostages. They dropped those demands once police surrounded the building.

One of the people inside the bank who escaped, Alexander Arguedas, said the bandits entered the bank while shooting.

"I saw wounded, among them the guard, a boy who was dead and another girl who could only be seen by her shoes, who did not move," he said.

Santa Elena de Monteverde, about 60 miles north of Cost Rica's capital, is dotted with restaurants, hotels and lodgings for tourists visiting the nearby cloud forests.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.