Small number of hostages released in Ossetia

Beslan (AsiaNews) – Armed militants holding about 350 people hostage freed 32 women and children from a school in Belsan, North Ossetia, not too far from the Chechen border. Lev Dzugayev, an aide to North Ossetia's president, confirmed the release of 26 women and children of various ages. Russia television showed soldiers taking the children to safety, one completely naked, another wrapped in a shawl. Dzugayev called the releases "the first success" and expressed hope for further progress in negotiating with the hostage-takers. Ruslan Aushev, a veteran of the Soviet Union's Afghan war and a former president of neighbouring Ingushetia, was one of the mediators. He is a respected figure in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region.

Whilst talks were on and off for the whole day, distraught parents and residents waited for news and updates. So far phone negotiations have not been successful. For his part, President Putin said: "Our main task is, of course, to save the life and health of those who became hostages."

Chechen militants holding the school have several demands; among them, the full withdrawal of Russian federal troops from the Republic and the release of all Chechen prisoners held in Ingushetia. The rebels threaten to kill 50 children for every one of them killed, 20 for every one wounded.

The school itself is located in Beslan, a town with 30,000 people in the Republic of North Ossetia which borders Chechnya, a Republic torn asunder by a war between local separatists and the Russia government. This is why the hostage-taking incident has been attributed to Chechen rebels even though no official claim has been made to that effect.

Ossetians are mostly Orthodox Christians, while Chechnya, Ingushetia and other North Caucasus republics are predominantly Muslim. Tensions between ethnic Ossetians and Ingush have continued ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Little is known about food and sanitary conditions inside the school; offers to deliver food and water to the hostages were turned down.

Valery Andreyev, the Federal Security Service's chief in North Ossetia, told reporters that elders from Chechnya and Ingushetia had offered to come to the school and act as stand-in hostages for the women and children inside. He also said that some of the militants had been identified, and investigators were attempting to find their relatives and bring them to the school to help in negotiations.

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