09/03/2004, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Ossetia: Orthodox bishop working to release hostages

A released hostage: "There are 1,500 persons in the school".

Beslan (AsiaNews) - Theofan (Ashurkov), Orthodox Bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, came urgently to Beslan (North Ossetia) where, according to latest information, Chechen terrorists were still holding some 1,500 hostages in a school, many of them children. Bishop Theofan is part of the group of mediators working for the release of the hostages. He addressed the terrorists on local TV, calling for the the hostages' immediate release. Children cannot be a bargaining chip. No political end could ever justify kidnapping these innocents. Children are the most defenceless part of Divine Creation and the part that must be most protected," the orthodox bishop stated. He added that "even during the most difficult moments in conflicts, opposing sides have never touched children and have done their utmost to keep them from danger." In all orthodox churches of Northern Ossetia prayer vigils have been held for the safe release of the hostages.

A hostage released from the school said that at least 1,500 people were being held there by armed militants. A local legislator announced a similar figure challenging far-lower official numbers. "On television they say that there are 350 of us. That's not right. There's not less than 1,500 in the school," Izvestia quoted the woman as saying on condition of anonymity.

President Vladimir Putin said everything possible would be done to end the "horrible" crisis and save the lives of the children and adults held at School No. 1 in Beslan.

A dozen people were reported killed by the attackers when the school was captured Wednesday, but one official said Thursday that 16 died. Local legislator Kadykov said that 20 adult males had been selected from among  the hostages and executed. Eventually, 26 women and children of various ages were released, but Russian media reported that one woman went back to be with her still-captive children.

Authorities estimate 15 to 24 militants held the school. Law enforcement sources in North Ossetia and Ingushetia said the attackers were believed to include Chechens, Ingush, Russians and a North Ossetian.

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