- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

BESLAN, Russia — Camouflage-clad soldiers carried crying babies away from a school where gunmen holding hundreds of hostages freed at least 26 women and children yesterday during a second day of crisis that kept crowds of distraught relatives on edge.

Tensions rose when the militants fired grenades at two cars near the besieged school compound. Later, men and women wept with disappointment or hugged each other with relief as a mustached man read the names and ages of the freed hostages over a loudspeaker.

President Vladimir Putin said everything possible would be done to end the “horrible” crisis and save the lives of the children and adults being held at School No. 1 in Beslan, a town in the southern region of North Ossetia.

Despite the release of a few hostages, government officials said the demands of the militants were not clearly defined, making it difficult for negotiators.

It was also unclear whether the siege was linked to the war in Chechnya — along with this week’s suicide bombing in Moscow and last week’s apparent bombings of two jetliners — or perhaps stemmed from broader ethnic conflicts that are roiling the northern Caucasus region.

Relatives, friends and neighbors who crowded outside barricades blocking access to the school gasped when the hostage release was announced by Lev Dzugayev, an aide to the president of North Ossetia, which borders Chechnya.

Mr. Dzugayev and other officials said 26 women and children of various ages were released, but Russian media reported that one woman went back to be with her still-captive children. An official at the crisis headquarters said another group of five hostages was let go separately.

An Associated Press Television News reporter saw two women and at least three infants being led away by soldiers. Some toddlers among those released were naked, apparently because of the stifling heat in the school. The hostage-takers have refused to allow authorities to deliver water, food and medicine for the captives.

Mr. Dzugayev called the releases “the first success” of negotiations and said they came after mediation — including inside the school — by Ruslan Aushev, a former president of the Ingushetia republic who is a respected figure in the northern Caucasus.

Late yesterday, Mr. Dzugayev said his previous statement that 354 hostages were seized Wednesday on the first day of school might have been too low, and many in the anxious masses said they believed the number was much higher. “Putin: at least 800 people are being held hostage,” read a sign held up for television cameras.

The hostage release came after anxieties were sent soaring by two powerful explosions, followed by a plume of black smoke rising from the vicinity of the school. The crisis headquarters said the militants fired grenades at two cars that apparently drove too close to the building.

The headquarters said neither car was hit, but a gutted car was visible not far from the school.

Early yesterday evening, a series of heavy thuds that sounded like artillery could be heard for several minutes, apparently coming from an area northwest of town. There was no information about the sounds.

Any hint of violence put people on edge. After seizing the school, the militants reportedly threatened to blow it up if troops tried to rescue the hostages; they also warned they would kill prisoners if any of their gang was hurt.

Authorities estimated that 15 to 24 militants held the school, and said the attackers killed at least a dozen persons when they captured the compound. One official said yesterday that 16 persons were killed and 13 wounded.

In his first public comments on the crisis, Mr. Putin pledged to do everything possible to get the hostages out safe.

“Our main task is, of course, to save the lives and health of those who became hostages,” Mr. Putin said in televised comments during a meeting at the Kremlin with visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II. “All actions of our forces working on the hostages’ release will be devoted and be subject to this task exclusively.”

Two major hostage-taking raids by Chechen rebels outside the war-torn region in the past decade prompted forceful Russian rescue operations that led to many deaths.


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