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Russia: Hostage Drama In North Ossetia Enters Second Day; At Least 12 Civilians Dead

There are reports of two large explosions at a school in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia that is the scene of an unfolding hostage drama. Large plumes of black smoke could be seen rising above the school this afternoon, where a group of armed men are holding some 325 hostages, including around 100 children. The cause of the blasts is not immediately clear. The attackers stormed the school in the town of Beslan early yesterday on the first day of classes in the new school year. While casualty figures vary, the North Ossetian interior minister said 12 civilians have been killed. He also said 15 students have so far managed to escape. And reports say 26 women and children, including infants, were freed by the gunmen this afternoon. As RFE/RL reports, the parents and other relatives of those children still inside the school are particularly worried that the hostage takers are refusing to accept food, water, and medicine.

2 September 2004 -- "I think some sort of measures should be taken, of course. Imagine a 11-year-old child who is hungry sitting there. He only had some coffee yesterday morning and went to school, dressed up. He had been preparing for [the beginning of the school year]. The boy went to school, and [my daughter] stayed here. She was a little bit late for school," said the distraught mother of one of an estimated 130 children -- most of them believed to be under 14 years old -- who are being held by gunmen in the school in North Ossetia. Some 225 adults are also inside the school.

Dmitrii Aleksandrov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and reported from Beslan: "Single gunshots and short bursts of fire were heard [inside the school] all night. Some time ago, the people who seized the school fired at a neighboring private house, but nobody was hurt. Other shots were fired inside the school."

It's not clear what the hostage takers are demanding -- or even who they are. ITAR-TASS reported that the gunmen's demands include freedom for people arrested in connection with attacks by militants against police facilities in neighboring Ingushetia in June, but that has not been confirmed.

Soslan Paguev's daughter is among the hostages. "Their demands should be fulfilled, whatever they want," he said. "Then time will tell. If they want to get away from here, they should be given a free way out. Of course, they may take [hostages as] a shield with them, but they're not going to carry them along with them all the way. There are some rumors that they want to go to Pakistan, so at least that demand should be satisfied, and then other ways to resolve this should be tried. But if [security forces] storm [the school] now, there will be casualties."

North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev said the authorities have been speaking with the hostage takers, but that so far they are rejecting all offers of negotiation. "We made some offers to them. That was before 3 a.m.," he said. "Our first offer was to exchange children for the same number of [adults]. [The hostage takers said] no. In our second offer, we went further than that and offered them a clear corridor and guaranteed their safety so they could get out of here and leave our children and adults in peace. They rejected it. This work will continue."

The gunmen are reportedly threatening to kill the children and blow up the school if they are attacked by Russian forces, who have surrounded the building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called off a trip to Turkey to deal with the continuing crisis. Putin spoke about the crisis during a meeting today in Moscow with visiting Jordanian King Abdullah. "What is happening in North Ossetia now is terrible," he said. "It is terrible because there are children among the hostages. It is also terrible because this action can shatter the already fragile balance of interfaith and interethnic relations in the region."

Putin said the main task is to save the lives of the hostages. He said all actions by Russian security forces "will be dedicated exclusively to this task."

Well-known pediatrician Leonid Roshal, who aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theater by Chechen militants in 2002, is leading the talks with the gunmen.

Beslan, a town of about 30,000, is in North Ossetia, near the republic of Chechnya, where separatist rebels have been fighting Russian forces since 1999. Suspicion for who is behind the hostage taking has fallen on Chechen militants, although no claims of responsibility have been made. A representative of separatist leader Aslan Mashkhadov denied involvement in a statement published on a separatist website.

Valerii Andreev is Russia's Federal Security Service's regional chief in North Ossetia. "I wouldn't speak about the nationality of the terrorists now, because it doesn't matter to us," he said.

The hostage drama started one day after a suspected Chechen suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine people, and just over a week after 89 people died in two Russian plane crashes that are suspected to have been caused by suicide bombers.

(compiled from staff and agency reports)

For the latest news on the hostage situation in North Ossetia, see RFE/RL's webpage on Ossetia.

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