Chechen rebels fire grenades from school where 350 are held hostage

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At least 350 hostages, many of them children, were trapped inside a school in southern Russia yesterday for the second night in a row, at the mercy of a group of heavily armed, predominantly Chechen gunmen.

At least 350 hostages, many of them children, were trapped inside a school in southern Russia yesterday for the second night in a row, at the mercy of a group of heavily armed, predominantly Chechen gunmen.

Despite official claims that negotiations were continuing, the day was punctuated by thudding explosions and sporadic gunfire as the hostage-takers made it clear that they were in no mood to compromise.

Rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the school's windows at the slightest sign of any movement by Russian special forces and gunfire stuttered in the afternoon sunshine.

Officials said in the morning that 354 people were being held hostage, but local people said the real figure was likely to be much higher and could be as many as a thousand.

Hopes rose yesterday as a group of women and children were released after negotiators appealed to the gunmen's compassion, but before the hostages were released, the fighters inside rebuffed several offers, including safe passage out of the town.

As many as 31 hostages were believed to have been freed. Three babies less than a year old were said to be among those released.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, pledged to do everything possible to save hostages' lives. In his first public remarks since the school was seized on Wednesday morning on the first day of term, Mr Putin said: "Our main task is, of course, to save the life and health of those who became hostages."

Arsen Kambolov, whose sister-in-law and nephew were among those released said: "The terrorists spoke in Ingush and according to my sister-in-law at least two female suicide bombers have already blown themselves up."

"It's the first success we've had and we hope that we can build upon it. Please have faith in us and don't give up," Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for Northern Ossetia's presidential administration, told an angry crowd after the releases. "We have gathered food and water but it's not possible to deliver it to the hostages. The information we have is that the children are in a satisfactory condition."

Mr Dzugayev said the releases came after mediation by Ruslan Aushev, a veteran of the Soviet Union's Afghan war and a former president of the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia,a respected figure in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region.

A prominent Russian paediatrician, Leonid Roshal, who helped hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theatre by Chechen suicide bombers in October 2002, was also among the negotiators.

He said last night that his contact among the hostage-takers was a man who called himself "something like Shai Khu" and identified himself as their press attaché. Mr Roshal said his interlocutor had called himself a "highlander" ­ an apparent reference to one of the ethnic groups living in the mountains of the North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya and other restive Russian republics, most of them predominantly Muslim.

Mr Dzugayev said the gunmen had been vague about their demands, while reports emerged that a video tape tossed out of one of the school's windows yesterday which was purported to contain detailed demands, was in fact blank.

"Unfortunately we can't say that their demands are being clearly formulated," he said. "It's very strange. We don't want to do anything to complicate the situation."

Negotiations apparently continued, but they were often short and extremely one-sided.

When asked what the gunmen had told the federal authorities, he said: "They just say 'Behave in a good manner and nobody will be killed', [but] they open fire at every attempt to come closer to the school. On our side, we have an order not to return fire."

Officials called for the media to be respectful towards the relatives of hostages who have begun visibly to crack up. Marina Tsegarayeva, a 42-year-old woman whose mother, brother and sister-in-law, were in the school, said she was pessimistic. "There are too many people in there and they will be suffering. For God's sake why don't they let them go?"

Explosions rocked the town yesterday afternoon when gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at a parked car truning it into a fireball.

There was uncertainty about the number of dead, initially put at seven, as civilians reported seeing at least one corpse lying on the grass verge at the back of the school. According to one report 16 people have been killed ­ 12 inside the school, two who died in hospital and two others whose bodies still lay outside the school ­ and 13 have been wounded. One of the dead was a pupil's parent who tried to resist the attackers.

In another report Kazbek Dzantiyev, the head of North Ossetia's interior ministry, told Itar-Tass news agency that 12 people had been killed.