Camouflaged Russian security agents carried babies to safety after militants holding hundreds of hostages in a besieged school release 26 women and children. Negotiators call the release a "first success."
Screaming babies are carried to safety, while 300 more hostages await their fate
On Thursday afternoon, the armed and masked gang of terrorists holed up in a school in the North Ossetia region on the southern Russian border released 26 women and children, Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported.
But relatives of the more than 300 other hostages waited helplessly outside the school in the town of Beslan as negotiations continued into the second day of the hostage crisis.
A woman walks past armed guards stationed outside the school
Casualty reports are varied, but according to an unnamed source from the joint-command operation for the crisis, 16 people were killed and another 13 injured after a gang of 20 masked and heavily armed men and women dressed in black burst into the courtyard of a secondary school in the town of Beslan early Wednesday morning, taking some 350 people hostage, including 200 school children.
The crisis, which occurred on the first day back to school, is the fourth terror attack to rock the shocked country in a week.
Saving lives main priority
In his first public remarks since the hostage-taking, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the lives of the those being held up in the school. "Our main task is, of course, to save the life and health of those who have been taken hostage. All the actions of our forces, who are dealing with freeing the hostages, will be devoted to solving this task," he said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, some 24 hours after the terrorists seized the school, two large explosions about 10 minutes apart rang out from the area of the cordoned-off building. Witnesses described seeing a billowing could of black smoke rising from the site, but no explanations were given. Since the hostage-taking several gunshots and minor explosions have gone off inside the school building.
The crisis began Wednesday morning when hostage takers herded the children and adults into a gym and demanded to meet with the head of the local region of North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia, Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported. They have threatened to blow up the building if security forces move in.
Some reports also said the gunmen, who had apparently mined the perimeter of the school, were demanding the release of rebels imprisoned in Ingushetia following a deadly raid there in June.
A man inside the school reportedly told the New York Times on Wednesday that he represented the Second Group of Salakhin Riadus Shakhidi, a rebel contingent believed to be headed by Chechnya's most notorious rebel commander, Shamil Basayev. The US newspaper said in its online edition that it reached the school by telephone and spoke with a man who identified himself as a spokesman for the fighters.
Negotiations just beginning
Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the region's Interior Ministry, said the hostages had threatened that "for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter, 20 (children)."
Valery Andreyev, head of the FSB security service in North Ossetia province told reporters that officials would refrain from using force to free the hostages. "There is no question at the moment of opting for force," he said. "There will be a lengthy and tense process of negotiation."
Pediatrician Leonid Roshal (left) and another unidentified doctor remove the body of a hostage killed inside a Moscow theatre seized by armed Chechens in Oct. 2002
The negotiations involve well-known pediatrician Leonid Roshal (photo), who assisted hostages during the deadly siege of the Moscow theater two years ago. Russia's NTV television reported that Roshal, whose participation the militants had demanded, conveyed to the hostage-takers the promise of a safe corridor out, but the offer was allegedly refused.
After the 26 hostages were released on Thursday Roshal described the situation as an initial victory. "But if you look at the broader picture, it is a drop in the ocean. The is plenty of work ahead," he told reporters.
The gunmen, Roshal said, were still refusing requests to allow food and water into the school. The pediatrician worried that an unsuccessful end to the crisis could plunge the region into a war between varied ethnic groups. "I appeal to the wisdom of the Ingush, Ossetian and Chechen peoples to avoid a war, otherwise thousands of lives will be lost."
Lack of information
Soldiers helped a small girl who escaped on Wednesday
As talks continued on and off throughout the night and into the second day of the crisis, details about who the gunmen are and what they want still remained unclear. Although suspicion falls heavily on Chechen involvement, no one has claimed responsibility yet. Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov has denied involvement of separatists in the hostage drama.
Distraught parents and relatives gathering in hundreds in the streets surrounding the school have demanded more information. "No one tells us anything. Some people say the terrorists are Chechens. Some people say they are Arabs, but we don't know," Nikolai Dzaparov, husband and grandfather of two hostages complained on Russian TV.
Beslan in North Ossetia is on the southern Russian border
North Ossetia lies just west of the strife-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, where Moscow has been locked in a bloody conflict with separatists for the past decade.
Spate of attacks
The hostage-taking in North Ossetia has rocketed terrorism to the very center of Russian consciousness following a series of attacks in the last few days.
Tuesday evening a car bomb exploded outside a crowded Moscow subway station during rush hour. The blast, which killed ten people and left scores injured, was claimed by the same group that said it was responsible for last week's crash of two Russian planes that killed 90 people.
Car bomb explodes in front of Moscow subway station on Aug. 31, 2004
"In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said to reporters after the series of attacks, but before the hostage-taking put the nation even more on edge.
The hostage crisis at the school has revived painful memories of the Moscow theater hostage-taking in 2002, during which 130 people died after police used a poison gas when they stormed the building.
In addition to the 26 hostages who were released Thursday, 50 children managed to escape capture after they hid in a school boiler room, ITAR-TASS reported. Another 14 pupils managed to escape from the building afterwards, the North Ossetia presidential spokesman told Interfax news agency.
All entrances to North Ossetia from neighboring republics have been closed, the republic's prime minister told Interfax.
We have increased security measures in all towns," including all schools and kindergartens, he said. Putin also mobilized national security forces to protect nuclear facilities across the country.
Emergency Security Council Meeting
Speaking to Russian television Putin said that what is happening in North Ossetia is especially horrible, "not only because some of the hostages are children, but because this action can explode even a fragile balance of interconfessional and international relations in the region."
President Putin, who broke off travel plans to Turkey called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council following the hostage-taking. UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on Tuesday strongly condemned the attack at the Moscow station and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages.