THE hard-pressed Russian authorities were last night dealing with another hostage crisis after four gunmen seized a school bus carrying both children and adults in the anarchic northern Caucasus region and threatened to kill one passenger every hour if their demands were not met. The drama was reminiscent of last December's seizure of schoolchildren by armed criminals who shuttled their captives over the same area of southern Russia in a hijacked helicopter before surrendering to police after a gunbattle.
Again this time the hostage-takers demanded a helicopter, in addition to dollars 10m ( pounds 6.7m), extra weapons and some drugs, raising the prospect of another tense chase for the police. Local Interior Ministry officials said the hijackers, described as Caucasians, released half their hostages in the evening in return for guns, ammunition and drugs, but were still holding 13 adults. 'They are not being very aggressive towards the hostages but they are firing their guns into the air,' said one official. 'They are still insisting on a helicopter and money and negotiations are continuing.'
Oleg Soskovets, the Deputy Prime Minister, who ended the last crisis without sacrificing any lives, was again leading a delicate operation.
Yesterday's drama began when the gunmen, wearing children's New Year party masks, seized the coach carrying the children with their parents and teachers on the highway outside Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia. They threw eight men who might have resisted them out of the vehicle. Then, holding the bus at a mountain village called Kangly, the gunmen released a man and a woman to tell the encircling police they were armed with submachine-guns and grenades and to pass on the demand for the cash, the helicopter and extra arms, including a grenade launcher and night sights.
They also asked for morphine, which prompted experts to speculate that one or more of the gang was either injured or a drug addict. 'The terrorists were sure that the man and woman would return because their kids remained on the bus,' said Tass news agency.
The gunmen appeared to have learnt from the experience of the criminals they were copying, because they insisted the helicopter be handed over without a crew. A pilot was one of the hostages held in December and he helped end the nightmare for his fellow captives by tricking the bandits into thinking they had landed in Chechnya, a Muslim territory which has declared independence from Russia, when in fact he had brought them down in Russia.
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