| A hostage steps off the hijacked bus at the Gerakas suburb, 25 km north of Athens, on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Athens, Dec. 15 (Reuters): Two suspected Albanians armed with hunting rifles and dynamite hijacked a packed passenger bus in Athens and set a Thursday deadline for payment of a $1-million ransom.
They did not say what would happen if the money was not paid.
As night fell, hours after the early morning drama began, the gunmen had freed 17 of an original 23 hostages.
Then the releases came to an abrupt halt when one hijacker set an 8 am (0600 GMT) Thursday deadline for payment of the ransom and vowed not to release any of the remaining hostages ' two men and four women ' until his demand was met.
'I will wait until eight 'clock tomorrow (0600 GMTThursday) for the money and the driver,' the man, who identified himself as 'Hassan', said in a mobile phone call from the bus to Greece's Alter TV. 'I am not letting anyone else go.'
Hundreds of helmeted police officers, snipers in camouflage fatigues and special forces were in position around the blocked blue bus, parked about 10 km east of Athens' centre. Dozens of hostages' relatives gathered at the scene.
Police said they were convinced the hijackers were Albanians but Hassan said in a phone call to another TV station that he was Russian. 'I am from Russia. I am not from Albania,' he told local TV station Antenna.
Police believe the hijackers may want to portray themselves as Russians rather than Albanians to avoid a backlash against the large Albanian immigrant community in Greece. Russian diplomats who have visited the scene also have said they do not believe the men are Russians.
'I am from Russia and I have lived in Greece for the past 12 years,' Hassan' said in fluent Greek in the call.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis postponed his departure for a European Union summit in Brussels by one day until tomorrow to deal with the crisis.
There were no reports of injuries, but a hostage said the gunmen had explosives either strapped around their waist or in a suitcase they had brought on the bus.
Negotiators talked with the hijackers throughout the day convincing them to release hostages in twos and threes.
Stella Matara, a hostage still on the bus, told state TV in a mobile phone call that the hijackers wanted a driver to take them to Athens airport and a plane to take them to Russia.
The original driver, a ticket collector and a woman passenger managed to escape from the bus in the first seconds of the hijack when shots were fired during the takeover.
'At the airport they want a plane to take them to Russia and then they will release the rest of the hostages,' Matara said.
Albanian immigrants told Albanian TV that the hijackers' accented Greek suggested they came from southern Albania. About 1 million of Greece's 11 million population are Albanian immigrants or of recent Albanian descent ' Greece's biggest minority group. Many came from the neighbouring nation to help with building work for Athens Olympics.
Relatives crammed a cafe near the bus, glued to a television set transmitting live images of the ordeal.