A Senegalese born school bus driver hijacked his own vehicle and set it on fire in Italy while more than 50 children, whose hands he had bound, were on board.
The 47-year-old driver said he was acting in revenge for the thousands of migrants, many of them African, who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years while trying to reach Europe from Libya.
The man, whose name was given as Ousseynou Sy, was driving 51 children from their middle school near the city of Cremona to a sporting event when he started making threats, brandishing a knife. He had also bound the hands of the children so they could not leave the bus.
In an ordeal that lasted around 40 minutes, he started driving towards nearby Milan. He rammed the bus into cars on a busy highway before it came to a stop at a roadblock set up by police. He then doused the bus in petrol and set it on fire.
According to police, he said, “No one will survive,” as he set the bus alight.
“He shouted ‘Stop the deaths at sea, I’ll carry out a massacre’,” said Marco Palmieri, a police spokesman.
Police succeeded in smashing the windows of the vehicle to allow the children to escape.
Mobile phone footage taken by passing motorists showed children screaming in panic as they ran away from the vehicle. At least 12 children were taken to hospital for bruises, smoke inhalation or because they were suffering from shock.
Francesco Greco, a prosecutor from Milan, said: “It was a miracle, it could have been a massacre. The carabinieri (police) were exceptional in blocking the bus and getting all the children out. They broke the windows and managed to get all 51 kids out.”
One of the children told reporters that the driver had threatened to pour petrol on them and set them alight.
“He handcuffed us and threatened us. He said that if we moved he would pour out the petrol and set fire to it.
“He kept saying that people in Africa are dying and the fault is Di Maio and Salvini’s” – a reference to Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, the leaders of the two parties that make up the populist coalition, Telegraph UK reports.
A 12-year-old boy who was interviewed by Italian television said the driver claimed that three of his children had drowned at sea while trying to reach Italy by boat from North Africa.
“He said he had lost three children, that many children die at sea, so we should die too, by being burned. I was afraid I would die,” the boy said.
Police said the suspect, who obtained Italian citizenship in 2004, had a criminal record, with convictions for sexual molestation and driving while drunk.
The bus driver was arrested on Wednesday and is likely to face charges of kidnapping, attempted mass murder, causing a fire and resisting arrest. Prosecutors said he could also be charged with terrorism offences.