Hostage-taker kills four in German apartment siege

A jobless man armed with guns and grenades shot dead four hostages and then himself Wednesday in a four-hour siege at a German apartment he was being evicted from, police said.

Police stormed the apartment in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe when they smelled burning several hours after the drama began, and found five bodies including that of the 53-year-old hostage-taker.

Prosecutors said the victims, who included a bailiff, a locksmith, the new flat owner as well as the female partner of the gunman, who previously owned the flat, were "basically executed".

"According to what we know, I assume that he planned a hostage-taking and even murder of the people who entered (the flat)," chief public prosecutor Gunter Spitz told a news conference.

Police said the man, described as unemployed with no record of violence, was armed with two pistols, two other guns, ammunition and hand grenades when he barricaded himself in the flat with his hostages.

Police chief Hildegard Gerecke told the news conference that security forces had faced a "very difficult, highly complex" situation.

"The forces did everything, knowing that there was a considerable danger, to of course do what was possible to save the lives of the hostages which, unfortunately, was no longer possible," she told reporters.

The gunman's 55-year-old partner had owned the apartment but fallen behind on maintenance fees and the home had been auctioned off.

The new owner ordered the couple to be evicted, prompting the bailiff, the locksmith and a social worker who planned to advise the pair on their options to go to the home early Wednesday.

After letting them inside, the man produced a weapon and ordered the locksmith to tie up the other victims. The hostage-taker, who was not named, shot the locksmith several times when he tried to snatch a gun away.

The gunman shot the bailiff in the leg, and released the social worker who then contacted police. They tried in vain to make telephone contact with the hostage-taker.

Police stormed the three-room apartment about four hours after the drama began, initially finding four bodies including the hostage-taker before also discovering the body of his partner in bed.

The four victims ranged in age from 33 to 55 years.

It was still unclear how the man obtained the weapons.

"I can tell you I am not only shocked but absolutely horrified by what happened today," Karlsruhe Mayor Heinz Fenrich said.

The fifth-floor flat was at the top of an apartment building in a leafy, middle-class neighbourhood, a few kilometres (miles) north of the city centre.

About 200 police officers were sent to the scene including about 40 members of elite units, and the area was sealed off.

Two schools and kindergartens are located nearby and several apartment blocks were evacuated, according to the local daily Badische Zeitung.

Justice minister of Baden-Wuerttemberg state Rainer Stickelberger called for everything to be done to shed light on "the terrible crime as quickly as possible".

German gun laws were tightened after two school massacres in the eastern city of Erfurt in April 2002 and in the southwestern town of Winnenden in March 2009, both of which were also carried out with legal weapons.

Several evictions in Germany have ended violently in recent years.

In December, a 68-year-old man shot the new owner of the apartment building he had been forced to put up for auction in Rastatt, also in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

In May 2010, a 62-year-old man caused a gas explosion in a house in central Thuringia state under threat of eviction.

After switching on the gas and lighting candles he and his wife tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. While his wife died in the fire, the man ran to warn neighbours and left the building.

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