RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A police sniper in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday shot dead a man who had hijacked a bus on a bridge across Guanabara Bay and taken 37 people hostage, in a dramatic end to an incident that underlined the daily grind of violence in the Brazilian city.
The hijacking, from which all the hostages emerged unharmed, began before dawn when a masked man commandeered a commuter bus on the bridge connecting Rio with the city of Niteroi. The man took 37 people in the bus hostage before freeing six of them, officials said.
About four hours later, the hostage-taker walked out of the bus, flung a backpack towards police and then fell to the ground as he tried to re-enter the vehicle, TV images showed. Police officials said he was shot by a police sniper.
Videos showed the sniper, positioned for more than an hour on top of a fire truck, celebrating after shooting the man.
Police did not provide more details on the hostage-taker. In a news conference later, Rio de Janeiro state Governor Wilson Witzel said there was a strong smell of gasoline in the bus and that the hijacker had a lighter in his hand.
"Congratulations to the Rio de Janeiro police for the successful action that ended the bus hijacking on the Rio-Niteroi bridge this morning," President Jair Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter. "The criminal was neutralized and no hostage was injured. Today, no family-member of an innocent person will be in tears."
Bolsonaro, a far-right former federal congressman who represented the state of Rio de Janeiro for nearly three decades, has long advocated that police take a tougher line to combat years of rising crime. In 2015, he said Brazil's military police should "kill more people." Since taking office in January, he has sought to broaden citizen access to guns and pushed measures to protect police if they kill on the job.
Although the number of murders in Rio has fallen sharply in recent months, the city's police have killed 15% more people so far this year compared with the same period in 2018. A total of 881 people, or nearly five per day, died at the hands of police between January and June, putting it on track to be the highest number since records started being kept in 2003.
This week's bus hijacking also highlighted a grim reality of life in Rio, where many use specialised apps to safely navigate their way past daily gun battles between police, drug gangs, and vigilante militias comprised of current and former cops.
Local media reported the unidentified hijacker was armed with a plastic gun but there was no official confirmation. Hans Moreno, a passenger on the bus, told Globo News the hijacker had a pistol and a knife, and never explained to passengers the reasons for his actions.
As the hijacking ended, a visibly delighted Witzel arrived by helicopter and bounded across the bridge to hug police involved in killing the hijacker.
Witzel, an ideological peer of Bolsonaro who also took office in January, says police should kill anyone with a rifle, and has ordered snipers to fire on suspects from helicopters. The conclusion to the hijacking, which resulted in no hostage casualties, represented a victory for the governor, who has come under growing pressure in recent weeks over the number of people slain by cops.
In comments to journalists at the scene, Witzel celebrated the outcome but lamented the death of the hijacker.
"We don't want anyone to die, but ... the police will act rigorously and will not be lenient with those who endanger other people's lives," he said, while also defending his previous arguments in favour of police shooting anyone with a rifle.
"Some people do not always understand that police work sometimes has to be this way. If they had not shot this criminal, many lives would not have been spared," he said.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Paul Simao)