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By Verna Gates
MIDLAND CITY, Ala., Feb 5 (Reuters) - Authorities used a hidden camera to watch a man holding a boy hostage in an underground bunker in rural Alabama and moved in to rescue the child after the suspect was seen wielding a gun and looking agitated, according to news reports on Tuesday.
The nearly weeklong standoff with Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, began after he gunned down a school bus driver and snatched the boy. It ended on Monday with Dykes' death and the safe recovery of the kindergarten student, identified only as Ethan.
The boy, who turns 6 on Wednesday, was reunited with his mother and taken to a hospital for treatment, but appeared physically unharmed, law enforcement officials said.
"He's laughing, joking, playing, eating," said FBI Special Agent Steve Richardson, who had visited with the child.
Authorities released few details about their extended negotiations with Dykes or their decision to storm the homemade bunker on his property near Midland City, in southeastern Alabama.
At a news conference on Monday, Richardson said talks had deteriorated in the 24 hours ahead of the rescue, and Dykes was seen holding a gun.
NPR reported that officials monitored Dykes with a camera they had managed to get into the underground shelter. Dykes initially attended to the boy's needs and seemed to sleep peacefully, but later appeared agitated and ignored the child, sources told NPR, which cited unnamed law enforcement officials.
To prepare for the rescue, FBI agents trained using a mock bunker officials had created near the site, according to ABC News, citing unnamed sources.
A local law enforcement source told Reuters that a stun or flash grenade was detonated before agents shot and killed Dykes.
OBAMA PRAISES RESCUE
The end of the hostage situation brought a collective sigh of relief in the rural corner of Alabama where it played out. Several local schools reopened on Tuesday for the first time since the shooting a week ago, and officials said counselors were on hand to help students.
"If I could, I would do cartwheels all the way down the road," Debra Cook, identified as the boy's great aunt, said on ABC's Good Morning America. "You know, we had all been walking around in a fog ... There's no words to put how we felt and how relieved we were."
The drama captured national attention amid heightened U.S. concerns about gun violence and school safety after the December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.
A White House official said President Barack Obama called FBI Director Robert Mueller on Monday evening "to compliment him for the role federal law enforcement officers played in resolving the hostage situation in Alabama," Politico reported.
"The president praised the exceptional coordination between state, local and federal partners, and thanked all the law enforcement officials involved during the nearly weeklong ordeal for their roles in the successful rescue of the child," the White House official said.
Dykes, a retired trucker who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War era, had been due to appear in court last Wednesday to face a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors.
On the eve of his trial before a judge, Dykes boarded a school bus carrying more than 20 children home and demanded that the driver let a student off the bus, according to authorities.
When the driver, Charles Albert Poland, 66, refused, Dykes shot him four times with a 9 mm handgun, killing Poland, and fled with the boy, officials said.
On Tuesday, the other students who had been on Poland's route were accompanied by a pastor and a state transportation official as they rode a new bus to school, educators said.
School administrators said they were working on plans for a party to honor Poland's memory and celebrate Ethan's birthday.
"We have a long way to go on this healing process," said Donny Bynum, superintendent of Dale County Schools. "We will process it out and learn from it to prevent it from ever happening again." (Additional reporting by Tom Brown and David Adams; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Leslie Adler, Cynthia Johnston and Martin Golan)