Militants at school release at least 31 hostages
Associated Press Writer
BESLAN, Russia (AP) – Camouflaged security agents carried babies to safety after militants holding hundreds of hostages at a school released at least 31 women and children Thursday, and officials expressed hope that negotiations would bring more progress in the standoff in southern Russia.
But a crowd of hostages’ relatives keeping vigil outside the school was shaken when a pair of explosions went off just ahead of the release. Officials said militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at two cars that got too close to the school.
The developments came after a night of telephone negotiations between Russian authorities and the militants, who stormed the school Wednesday, rounding up around 350 children and adults into a gym and threatening to blow up the building if police launch an assault.
Local official Lev Dzugayev called the release “the first success” and expressed hope for further progress in negotiations. He has said between 15 and 24 militants were thought to be in the school, which had students from grades one to 11. Also taken hostage in the standoff were some parents who were bringing their older children to school while carrying with them babies or pre-schoolers.
Security forces surrounded the building, and militants perched a sniper on an upper floor. Since the seizure, militants have refused offers to deliver food and water to the school.
In his first public comment on the standoff, President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the hostages’ lives. “We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole,” he said. “What is happening in North Ossetia is horrible.”
Thursday afternoon, militants released one group of 26 women and children, then a second group of three women and two children, the rescue operation’s headquarters reported.
Camouflage-clad security agents were seen carrying babies and young children – some wrapped in blankets, some naked – from the scene and into cars. An Associated Press Television News reporter saw soldiers escorting two women and at least two children away from the school.
Officials at the crisis headquarters said the releases came after mediation by Ruslan Aushev, an Afghan war veteran and former president of the neighboring Ingushetia region who is a respected figure in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region.
As Dzugayev announced some of the releases, a crowd of relatives swarmed around him, trying to find out if their loved ones were among those freed.
The hostage-taking in Beslan, a town of about 30,000 in the southern region of North Ossetia, appeared to be the latest in a string of attacks by insurgents from the nearby war-town republic of Chechnya. Suspicion has fallen on Chechen rebels, although no claim of responsibility has been made.
Valery Andreyev, the Federal Security Service’s chief in North Ossetia, seemed to rule out the immediate use of force against the hostage-takers.
“There is no alternative to dialogue,” the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. “One should expect long and tense negotiations.”
Sporadic gunfire chattered in the area through the night, keeping the crowds of relatives around the school on edge. On Thursday – 30 hours into the crisis – two large explosions about 10 minutes apart rocked the area, raising a cloud of black smoke.
Anxious relatives rushed to police barricades, trying to see what happened. The crisis headquarters said militants in the school fired RPGs at two cars. Officials said neither car was hit, but reporters said they saw a gutted car that apparently had been hit, about 100 yards from the school.
In the early evening, a series of heavy thuds that sounded like artillery could be heard, apparently coming from an area northwest of the town. The sund persisted for about 15 minutes.
The drama at the school came with memories still sharp from the deadly end to last major hostage-taking blamed on Chechens. In 2002, Chechen militants seized a Moscow theater, holding hundreds inside. That standoff ended when police pumped an unidentified knockout gas into the building – but the gas was responsible for almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.
Gennady Gudkov, a retired Federal Security Service colonel, said there is little chance that authorities will resort to a knockout gas this time – particularly since medical experts said it tended to have a stronger effect on children.
The militants’ storming of the school came a day after a suspected Chechen suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine people, and just over a week after 90 people died in two plane crashes that are suspected to have been blown up by bombers also linked to Chechnya.
The recent bloodshed is a blow to Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush Chechnya’s rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond the republic’s borders.
The attacks have put Russia on edge. Moscow’s government cancelled annual City Day events that had been planned for the weekend, Russian news agencies reported. The Federal Security Service branch in southern Russia’s Rostov region announced a search for two women with Muslim-sounding names, and local television in the region warned people to avoid crowded places.
Heavily armed militants wearing masks descended on the school shortly after 9 a.m. on the opening day of the new school year Wednesday. About a dozen people managed to escape by hiding in a boiler room, but hundreds of others were herded into the school gymnasium and some were placed at windows as human shields.
Casualty reports in the raid varied widely. One official in the operation center said 16 were killed. Dzugayev said that seven were killed. He also gave the number of hostages at 354, before Thursday’s releases.
From inside the school, the militants sent out a list of demands and threatened that if police intervened, they would kill 50 children for every hostage-taker killed and 20 children for every hostage-taker injured, Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the North Ossetia region’s Interior Ministry, was quoted as telling the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Andreyev said some of the militants had been identified, and investigators were attempting to find their relatives and bring them to the school to help in the negotiations.