Hostage crisis drags into second day

Heavily armed militants, many strapped with explosives, held more than 350 hostages including children through the night at a provincial Russian school as the crisis stretched toward its second day on Thursday.

Crowds of distraught relatives and townspeople waited helplessly for news of their neighbours and loved ones, their distress sharpened by the sporadic rattle of gunfire from the cordoned-off crisis site. The raiders reportedly have threatened to blow up the school if police storm it, but what they wanted and who they were remained unclear.

The town of about 30 000 is in North Ossetia, near the republic of Chechnya where separatist rebels have been fighting Russian forces since 1999 and suspicion in the raid fell on Chechen militants although no claim of responsibility has been made.

Casualty reports in the raid varied widely, but an official in the joint-command operation for the crisis said on condition of anonymity early on Thursday that 16 people were killed—12 inside the school, two who died in hospital and two others whose bodies still lay outside the school and could not be removed because of gunfire—and 13 others wounded.

However, an aide to the North Ossetian president, Lev Dzugayev, said on Thursday that seven were killed. He also gave the number of hostages at 354.

The raid 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 suicide bombers.

At least two people were killed, including a pupil’s parent, when the militants descended on Middle School Number 1 on the opening day of the new school year on 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.

Camouflage-clad special forces carrying assault rifles encircled the school, while the militants placed a sniper on an upper floor of the three-storey building.

Hours into the standoff Russian security officials used a phone number they were given and began negotiations with the hostage-takers. During the night, officials reported that Leonid Roshal, a well-known paediatrician who aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theatre by Chechens in 2002, had established contact with the raiders, which they had demanded. But those talks broke off about 3am, Interfax reported.

More than 1 000 people, including many distraught parents, crowded outside police cordons demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.

“I’ve been here all day, waiting for anything,” said Svetlana Tskayeva, whose grown daughter and three grandchildren aged 10, 6 and six months were among the captives. “They’re not telling us

anything. ...“It’s awful, it’s frightening.”

Many of them spent the night at the town’s cultural centre a few hundred meters from the school, weeping, pacing and trying to sleep.

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. Dzugayev estimated there were between 15 and 24 militants.

Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard throughout the standoff.

How the police could end the standoff without a storming was unclear. The Moscow theatre hostage-taking ended after an unidentified knockout gas was pumped into the building, but the gas was responsible for almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.

Gennady Gudkov, a retired Federal Security Service colonel and a member of the Russian Parliament’s defence committee, 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.

“I don’t think that in this case anyone would have the courage to use gas or any other means,” he was quoted as telling Russia’s website. Instead, he suggested authorities could offer the militants security guarantees, free passage out of the region and other guarantees to their families.

With violence spreading across the country, many Russians worry about their safety. Official talk of increasing security after terrorist attacks is dismissed by many, and although tight measures were put in place in North Ossetia after the hostage crisis, few signs of major changes have been visible elsewhere.

The recent bloodshed is a blow to President Vladimir 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.

Putin for the second time in a week interrupted his working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and returned to Moscow to deal with the unfolding crisis. However, he has made no public statement—a characteristic Putin strategy during crises.

President Bush called Putin and “condemned the taking of hostages and the other terrorists attacks in Russia,” White House spokesperson Claire Buchan said.

Bush offered “assistance” to Russia in dealing with the crisis if requested, but no request had been made so far, the White House said.

After an emergency session called for by Russia, the United Nations Security Council condemned “the heinous terrorist act” and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

The crisis began after a ceremony marking the first day of Russia’s school year, when students often accompanied by parents arrive with flowers for their new teachers. The school covers grades 1-11, but regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said that most of the children taken hostage were under 14 years old.

Shortly after 9am, the attackers drove up in a covered truck similar to those used for military transport. Gunfire broke out, and at least three teachers and two police were wounded, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesperson for southern Russia.

Most of the hostages were herded into the school gym, but others—primarily children—were ordered to stand at the windows, he said. He said most of the militants were wearing suicide-bomb belts.

At least 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building’s boiler room during the raid, said Ruslan Ayamov, spokesperson for North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry. Media reports suggested that as many as 50 other children fled in the chaos as the attackers were the raiding the school.

“I was standing near the gates—music was playing—when I saw three armed people running with guns. At first I though it was a joke, when they fired in the air and we fled,” a teenage witness, Zarubek Tsumartov, said on Russian television.

Hours after the seizure, the militants sent out a blank videotape, a message saying “Wait” and a note with a cell phone number, Russian officials said. Andreyev, the federal security official, said “for a long time we could not make contact” with the attackers, but that authorities reached them by phone and that “negotiations are being held now.”

Dzugayev, the North Ossetia presidential aide, said brief contact with the captors indicated they were treating the children “more or less acceptably” and were holding them separately from the adults.

Dzugayev said the attackers’ demands were unclear and that they might be from Chechnya or another neighbouring region, Ingushetia, where militants mounted coordinated assaults on police facilities in June, killing some 90 people. ITAR-Tass reported that the school raiders’ demands included freedom for people arrested in the Ingushetia attacks.

In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said the hostage-takers were believed to be Chechen rebels.

A representative of Aslan Mashkhadov, a separatist leader who was Chechnya’s president during three years of de-facto independence that ended in 1999, denied involvement in a statement published on a separatist website.

The site also dismissed reports that the raiders were part of the so-called Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, a group accused of taking part in the Moscow theater raid. The group is believed to be under the command of Chechnya’s notorious warlord Shamil Basayev. - Sapa-AP

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