A hostage stand-off in Alabama has ended with the safe return of a five-year-old boy who had been taken captive and held underground in a bunker for nearly a week.
The gunman, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, has died, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr Dykes, a man who had fought in Vietnam and appeared to harbour a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbour, is believed to have spent several months digging the bunker in his yard
Steve Richardson, the FBI special agent in charge of the operation in Midland City, said negotiations with Mr Dykes had deteriorated in the past day.
Stormed the bunker ... Armed law enforcement personnel station themselves near the property of Jimmy Lee Dykes. Photo: AP
He said Mr Dykes was observed holding a gun, and the FBI feared "the child was in imminent danger".
At 3.12pm local time on Monday, agents from the FBI's Rescue Hostage Team stormed into the bunker and rescued the child named Ethan, who was due to celebrate his sixth birthday on Wednesday.
The FBI used a flash-bang device to create a diversion before going in.
Law enforcement officials at the property of Jimmy Lee Dykes. Photo: AP
Those at the scene reported hearing several loud bangs, possibly an explosion and gun shots, before an ambulance was seen leaving the area.
"The subject [Mr Dykes] is deceased," Mr Richardson said, although he did not provide details about how Mr Dykes died. It was unclear whether he was shot by agents who stormed into the bunker.
Mr Richardson said Ethan appeared physically unharmed, and was being treated at a local hospital.
Killed ... Jimmy Lee Dykes. Photo: Alabama Department of Public Safety/AFP
Thomas Mabe, who identified himself as Ethan's uncle, told Midland City's local paper The Dothan Eagle that his nephew was recovering but had a long way to go. He thanked everyone who had supported his family in the past week.
"I've seen Ethan," Mr Mabe said.
"He's physically OK, but he has a long way to go."
CBS News reported that the FBI rescue team created two diversions to distract Mr Dykes before they entered the bunker from the top.
Officials had lowered a camera into the bunker and "had eyes on him the whole time", CBS said, citing unnamed sources.
The FBI borrowed from the US military high-tech detection equipment similar to technology used to discover home-made bombs in war zones, according to CNN.
Rescuers are believed to have built a mock-up of the bunker nearby, where they could test various options while devising a rescue plan.
FBI spokesman Jason Pack said bomb technicians were checking the bunker for explosive devices and planned to examine the area more closely when it was safe.
Mr Dykes, a Vietnam veteran and retired trucker, fatally shot bus driver Charles Albert Poland, 66, as he tried to protect the more than 20 children on his bus during their ride home from school on Tuesday last week.
Mr Dykes took one boy hostage, and kept him for six days in a small homemade bunker, believed to measure about 1.8 metres by 2.4 metres.
Authorities had identified the boy only as Ethan, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
Mr Dykes, who appeared to harbour a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbour, is believed to have spent several months digging the bunker in his yard.
Neighbours said he had been known to stay in his well-equipped bunker for up to eight days. Some said they watched him build it, carrying cinder blocks and digging for hours.
The bunker was well supplied with food to last for weeks and, apparently, a television and lights. Law enforcement officials had been careful not to anger Mr Dykes, who was believed to be watching coverage of the hostage drama on a television inside the bunker.
Neighbours speculated that Mr Dykes had kidnapped the boy as part of a scheme to air his grievances on a larger platform.
Sheriff Wally Olson, of Dale County, acknowledged that was a major motive.
"Based on our discussions he feels like he has a story that is important to him, although it's very complex," he said.
Mr Dykes is not believed to have any connection with Ethan, who he snatched off a bus after shooting and killing the bus driver as he drove children home from school.
The bus stopped and Mr Dykes jumped on – according to police reports based on interviews with children who were on the bus – and then demanded two boys between the ages of six and eight.
Mr Poland, the driver, held Mr Dykes at the front of the bus while children escaped out the back. He was hit with as many as four bullets from a 9-millimetre pistol. The well-liked driver was quickly called a hero by residents.
With the driver down, Mr Dykes grabbed two children, the police said. One escaped. Ethan may have frozen or fainted, allowing Mr Dykes to take him swiftly from the bus.
During the hostage drama, Mr Dykes reportedly allowed authorities to deliver medication, colouring books and toys to the boy, with law enforcement officials believed to be communicating with him through a PVC pipe leading into the bunker.
According to neighbours, Mr Dykes was notoriously reclusive and moved to the Midland City area about two years ago.
He was often seen patrolling the property, where he lived in a trailer, with a gun and flashlight at night. Neighbours said he had once beaten a dog to death with a lead pipe, and threatened to shoot children for setting foot on his property.
He had been due for a bench trial last Wednesday after his recent arrest on a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors.
Mr Dykes is believed to have grown up in the area and joined the Navy in Midland City, serving on active duty from 1964 to 1969.
His record shows several awards, including the Vietnam Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. During his service, Dykes was trained in aviation maintenance.
Throughout the hostage situation, residents watched as their tiny town of Midland City – where the National Peanut Festival in nearby Dothan is usually the biggest event of the year – was constantly shown on national television.
Wires and Megan Levy