'There's only one way this can end and that is in bloodshed'

Their emotions torn between anger and fear, parents of hostages are swearing revenge on the terrorists, reports Andrew Osborn from Beslan

Pacing up and down her modest kitchen yesterday, a few streets from School Number 1, where at least 350 hostages were being held, Aza Ezaev tried to put on a brave face, but the tears welled up every few minutes.

Pacing up and down her modest kitchen yesterday, a few streets from School Number 1, where at least 350 hostages were being held, Aza Ezaev tried to put on a brave face, but the tears welled up every few minutes.

Like most people in Beslan, a small town in the northern Caucasus of some 35,000 people, Aza, 74, had friends and relatives inside the school; her sister, her niece and three grandchildren. As she made tea, blasts reverberated from the school as the hostage-takers fired rocket-propelled grenades at Russian special forces moving positions. A few minutes later, pistol shots pierced the warm September sun, then the thudding of a machine gun.

"I can barely concentrate," Aza told two journalists whom she had generously agreed to feed and lodge. "Forgive me for the meagre spread. Had I known you were coming I would have prepared Ossetian specialities." On this nightmare day, the Ezaev family was fussing over their unexpected guests as if they were running a top-flight guesthouse. "I have five relatives in there and I know there is only one way this can end: badly," Aza said. "These people [the hostage-takers] are not human. They have no conscience and no scruples."

Her son Alek, said, stony-faced: "There is only one way this can end and that is in bloodshed. These people came here for only one reason. They have nothing to lose. We have a saying, 'Russia needs the Caucasus but without the people who live here'. These bastards should be tried, then shot."

In the Ezaevs' household the doorbell rang regularly all day as family friends arrived to comfort one another. Most sat in silence, chain-smoking and drinking tea. Aza's daughter-in-law, Larisa, a Chechen, tried to make herself busy as her children Georgy, three, and Ilya, two, played around as if it was a day like any other. "Don't listen to our conversation," Larisa told them after another explosion rang out. "Go and play outside," Alek added, now showing the stress. "These terrorists are in a trance. They are crazy people. They are on drugs and their hearts are cold."

The Ezaevs' phone rang yet again. "Yes, all is OK here. We're waiting," Larisa told a friend calling from Ukraine as she sobbed quietly to herself.

Aza said the hostage-takers were "Arabs, Chechens and Ingush", pronouncing the last word as if she was spitting out rotten food. "I blame the Ingush. They have always been a hard-hearted people. Stalin deported them and everyone was happy when they were gone but then they came back and the problems started again. We are God-fearing people but we are surrounded by Muslims or hostile forces on all sides."

Alek said things would never be the same again in this far-flung part of southern Russia , no matter how things ended. "How can you forgive someone who kills? You can't. There will be war after this and we will fight."

Boris, Aza's grandson, a polite 17-year-old who is a pupil at School Number 1, told of his lucky escape. He had stayed up late on Tuesday watching a film and had slept in. When a friend called and asked him if he was going to school he went back to sleep. Two hours later, the school and most of its pupils were in the hands of up to 20 hostage-takers. "So many of my friends are stuck inside and my neighbour even went back for his sister after he had managed to escape. I am fearful."

As the afternoon wore on, two family friends turned up. One, a man who gave his name only as Aslan, said everyone who was important to him was trapped inside. "We're a very tight-knit people in Ossetia," he added. "They're almost all our relatives. Everyone is close here. We are bracing ourselves for anything because this is our tragedy."

A couple of streets away events unfolded with alarming speed. A white Lada parked 200 metres from the school burst into flames after the hostage-takers fired an RPG at it. It smouldered slowly in the sunshine as people craned their necks to get a look at a corpse on a grass verge that was swarming with special forces.

Rumours abounded; that tanks were coming from neighbouring Vladikavkaz, that all the men in the school had been butchered, that some hostages had been released, that children's bodies had been dropped from the windows and that the town's packs of stray dogs had begun to gnaw at the corpses littering the front of the school, out of the glare of the world's media. Officials gave impromptu press conferences and hundreds of relatives congregated in the town's House of Culture for regular updates from officials. How many hostages there are is discussed with anger, coupled with widespread scepticism of official information.

One man, who refused to give his name, said: "It's simple arithmetic. There are 11 year-groups and three or four classes in each year-group. Each class is about 30 children. That means there are at least 900 people in there, most of them children. Let them fulfil the hostage-takers' demands. They should do anything they can because there are children involved."

Fatima, a 51-year-old grandmother who said her niece and nephew were inside, was furious. "Why are they making this up. It's bullshit. It's a terrible lie. They're not telling the truth. There are more than 1,000 people in there. Is it not a crime to hold six-month-old babies captive for 36 hours? This would not have happened in the Soviet Union when people respected each other." Another woman who refused to be named was more scathing. "I'm going to change my citizenship," she said angrily. "It's an absolute disgrace what is happening to this country. Maybe the English will give me asylum."

But when a convoy carrying an estimated 26 hostages who had just been released eased past the throng there was elation. The crowd gave a peculiar, collective sigh of relief and chased after a van, clamouring to place their hands on it and catch a glimpse of who was inside. "Some of our children have come back to us," cried someone in the crowd.

Fatima, an employee at Beslan's Central Post Office, rushed across the street at one point, begging reporters for information. "Is it true they have released some hostages?" Her friend had been blown up, she said, when he had picked up a machine gun to try to fend off the attackers. "His body is still lying where it fell. We can't get to it."

Police roadblocks, manned by twitchy conscripts and reinforced by armoured cars, kept the surging crowds at bay while special forces moved nearer the school. Troops trudged along the pavements carrying food and blankets for the hostages, but the Chechen and Ingush fighters refused all such help.

Armed policemen tried to keep journalists away, saying they had strict orders to give relatives a place of refuge from prying media. Some of the relatives, many of whom had not slept since the crisis began, took up positions as close as they could to the army roadblocks.

Blasts erupted again and at each explosion, women began to weep and wail and men cradled their heads in their hands. One woman in a typical Caucasian headscarf began to scream and clutch her head. Another woman cried: "They're killing our children again. When will this end?" Some turned on journalists and officials. "Do you have no conscience?" shouted one man as Russian TV trained a camera on a woman who seemed on the verge of a breakdown. "Don't talk to the journalists, talk to us the people affected," screamed another.

Several groups of relatives carried anti-government placards. "Putin: There are no less than 800 hostages being held," said one. "Putin: Let our children go. Give in to the hostage-takers' demands," said another.

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