Police were tightlipped on Saturday as confusing accounts emerged of the exact circumstances under which officers shot dead a 41-year-old Egyptian man in the Larnaca district after he threatened to kill his 16-month-old son during a 12-hour hostage standoff with the rapid response unit at his home.
The toddler was injured in the ordeal sustaining a knife wound 10cm long and 3cm deep from his cheek to his neck but it is not clear how it happened. Earlier reports said the injury happened when police shot his father and he fell while holding a knife but Larnaca CID chief Charalambos Zachariou said “police intervention managed to rescue the child as the 41-year-old had managed to stab its left jaw.”
The boy is currently hospitalised at the Makarios Children’s Hospital in Nicosia but his injury is not life-threatening, authorities said.
Responding to a question during a press conference later on Saturday, Police Chief Zacharias Chrysostomou adamantly denied an eyewitness account that said the toddler was already on the way to the hospital before the father was shot.
“The information I have, for which I am absolutely certain is that no such thing happened. Our (police) members did what they did using necessary force and having truly exhausted all options, because the ultimate goal was to rescue the child and end the whole incident without bloodshed,” he said.
“We had no other choice. The injury the child sustained bears witness to this. Thankfully the wound was a short distance from the carotid artery,” the chief added.
Any loss of life is tragic, Chrysostomou said, however police did everything by the book.
“Their job is to maintain public safety and protect human life and it was on this basis that they acted,, using the force the situation required,” he added.
The hostage negotiation operation began on Friday night when at about 7pm, neighbours informed police that the child’s father was in the midst of a huge fight with his Hungarian wife, 36, in their Oroklini flat.
Police went around and knocked on the door several times but no one answered, they said.
At around 10pm, the wife went to the convenience store and the husband followed her with the child in his arms. When officers approached them, the father fled back to the apartment and locked himself in a room taking the child hostage.
Several anti-terrorism units were deployed after the mother said she was scared he would try kill their son. Along with the mother, officers along with hostage negotiators from police headquarters, tried to convince the man to hand himself over with the child but to no avail. The situation dragged on until the early hours until the shooting just before 6am.
Eyewitnesses said they saw the man with a belt tied around his waist containing several knives.
According to Larnaca CID chief Zachariou, the Egyptian man had made his intention to kill the child clear and the boy was in immediate danger. The man had lit fire, turned on the kitchen gas supply and threw Molotov cocktails around the flat. Neighbours also said they saw him throw Molotovs from the window of the ground-floor apartment and as a result a fire truck and ambulance were called to the scene.
According to the Cyprus News Agency, eyewitness Valentinos Damianou said: “We could hear noise from the flat where it seems windows and other objects were broken. There was smoke coming from flames within the flat and sometimes the 41-year-old would open the window and door to let air in.”
He recalled that during the ordeal police called on the man numerous times to leave the flat with the child but he would shout and demand to speak with his wife.
In a short video of the incident, negotiators can be heard telling the man if he wanted to speak to “her” it could be arranged but he needed to come outside without holding anything.
“We are here we came with the police to help you,” the voice is heard saying.
They can also be heard asking him if he was all right and if he was ready to agree on something.
CNA said the man was eventually shot shortly after 6am when he opened the door to give police the materials he had used to make the explosives. It has not been explained how police persuaded him to do that or to exit the flat, if true.
Zachariou refrained from explaining how exactly the events unfolded but said they realised the child was in imminent danger because they had seen the man stand over the boy holding a knife inside the flat. Officers were left with no other option, he said. “We exhausted every other means possible,” he added.
Damianou said the father was shot after he left the flat and had spoken to police. Specifically, he recalls gunshots were heard right after they had spoken.
The Larnaca CID chief said police had shot the Egyptian man with rubber bullets five times but it didn’t incapacitate him. He declined to say how much time had elapsed before the father was shot with a real bullet, how many times or where. A post mortem was scheduled for later on Saturday.
It is not clear why, if he was outside the flat, officers had to use real bullets if he had already been hit with rubber bullets, and was already outside, whether he had turned to go back inside, or if the shooting in fact happened indoors.
Zachariou did not disclose who gave the orders to shoot adding that a report to inform the police chief and attorney-general was being prepared and would be sent by the end of the day.
A bulletproof vest was found inside the flat which has been sent for tests, police said.
They said the man’s wife told officers under questioning that the couple often argued and she had wanted a divorce but he would not agree to it.
Damianou said he had seen the couple and their child on Friday afternoon at about 4pm by the pool and everything seemed normal. “At about 6 or 7pm we saw police in the neighbourhood closing off the scene so we realised something serious had happened.”
The scene was closed off on Saturday and police continue to investigate, along with Interpol to try and find more information.
According to Zachariou, the Egyptian national has been in Cyprus for three years and is unemployed. During his stay on the island he got married and had his son. He had applied for political asylum but his request was rejected.