Anger mounts in hostage crisis

They wait in an atmosphere of mounting rancour just metres from where their relatives are held hostage, grasping at any piece of information in an agonising vigil that still has no end in sight.

“If there were just adults inside then everyone would already be dead. But these are children and I hope that hope will not abandon them,” said Georgy, whose three nephews and a niece are trapped in the school.

Hundreds of relatives of the hostages were gathered in the House of Culture, 150m from the school in the town of Beslan in the southern Republic of North Ossetia, just a stone’s throw away from strife-torn Chechnya.

The armed captors who stormed the school on Wednesday released 26 women and children on Thursday, but hundreds of others are still being held.

The crisis unit set up on the scene said that the liberation, the first major release of hostages, was made possible through the mediation efforts of former Ingush president Ruslan Aushev.

Luda, a 53-year-old widow whose two teenage children are among possibly hundreds seized on the first day of the school year on Wednesday, sat on a bench and could barely bring herself to talk.

Surrounded by friends who had come to give support, her head was bowed in desperation.

The rumbling of the generators from the hordes of television wagons parked outside resounded around the area.
When the abductors and security forces exchanged fire, family members rushed to look out of the windows of the building.

Starved of precise information, people fed themselves with rumour. One woman said she was sure that the children had been given something to eat, another said they had nothing. A hostage’s father claimed the security forces had tried to storm the school.

Authorities accused of minimising numbers

While officials have said that 354 hostages are holed up inside the school, some of the relatives said that about 1 000 could have been there when the extremists attacked.

Every time a spokesperson for the Ossetian government tried to speak, he was interrupted by a hundred people and their children, who accused the authorities of minimising the number of children inside the school.

“They are lying to us so that if they launch an attack it will be easier for them to say that 200 people have been killed than if there are 800 of them inside,” said one.

Ilan last saw his two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter when she left with her mother who wanted to show her the celebrations for the return to school. When the armed group launched their raid, both were forced inside the school.

“I was in front of the school and the police came to sort out the list of the people who had disappeared. This morning my brother-in-law said that there were 1 007 names on that list,” said Larissa Pukhaeva (33).

Late on Wednesday, his son tried to go to the school but had to give up as the hostage-takers were firing on anyone who dared approach. The security forces were also stopping anyone from coming near.

The families live in fear of a botched assault by the security forces.

“The terrorists have their claims, but the authorities don’t want to tell us. This will allow them to attack and if there is a massacre, they can say there was no other option,” said one woman.

Georgy recalled the nightmarish hostage-taking at a Moscow theatre by Chechen rebels in 2002, during which 130 people died after police used poison gas when they stormed the building.

“I don’t know if we can have confidence in our special forces. I just hope that they will not repeat what they did during the Dubrovka theatre hostage-taking,” he said.

However, the security services have made it clear that for the moment they do not intend to use force to end the siege.

It remains unclear how the children will be able to sustain themselves. Officials admit that so far they have failed to persuade the captors to accept water and medicines for the hostages.—Sapa-AFP

International condemnation

The United Nations Security Council issued a tough condemnation late on Wednesday and demanded the immediate release of the hostages.

“The Security Council condemns in the strongest terms the heinous act of taking hostages at a secondary school in the town of Beslan,” said the council’s president for September, Spanish ambassador Juan Antonio Yanez-Barnuevo, in a presidential statement.

“The Security Council demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages of the terrorist attack,” it said.

“The Security Council urges all states ... to cooperate actively with the Russian authorities in their efforts to find and bring to justice the perpetrators, organisers and sponsors of these terrorist acts.

“The Security Council reaffirms that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, whenever and by whomever committed,” said the statement.

The statement, adopted by all 15 council members after lengthy discussions, did not link the hostage-takers to any group.

A spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry, Cecile Pozzo di Borgo, on Thursday “strongly condemned” the hostage-taking, saying “no cause could justify” it.

“We demand the immediate and unconditional release of these hostages.”

She added: “France underlines that the Chechen conflict can only be properly resolved through a political solution leading to away out of the spiral of violence, in respect of the territorial integrity of the Russian federation.”

Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio condemned the hostage-taking as a “barbarous act” in a message sent to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

“The terrorist attacks which the Russian Federation have been the target of, which culminated with the barbarous taking of hostages at a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, cause the strongest indignation and deserve an energetic condemnation,” he wrote.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said: “No argument can justify taking children hostage and threatening to kill them. Our thoughts are with the hostages and their families and we hope that this hostage crisis will end quickly and without bloodshed.”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in a telephone call to Putin, also offered to send a mobile hospital to the scene.

Turkey, which has in the past been accused by the Russian authorities of turning a blind eye to the alleged presence on Turkish soil of Chechen rebels and of failing to prevent its citizens from joining the secessionists’ ranks, dubbed the hostage-taking an “unacceptable act of terrorism”, after Putin postponed a planned trip to the country.

“We forcefully condemn this form of terrorist action, which can in no way be justified and which harms the life of innocent people and even children,” said a written statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

“This is an unacceptable act,” it said, adding that terrorism is the “biggest threat against peace and security” in the world.—AFP, Sapa-AFP

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