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Child hostages test Russia's antiterror response

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 2004


Clutching a blanket-wrapped bundle, the mother dashed across the street toward waiting Russian soldiers.

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And she was free.

By instinct, the crowd of hundreds of family members - red-eyed from two days of heartbreaking vigil 150 yards from the school where some 350 of their children and relatives have been taken hostage - surged past a security cordon to get a better look.

Then another woman dashed to freedom, and another. At least 31 people were let go Thursday, raising hopes that more lives might be saved and a negotiated end might be achieved in this hostage drama.

Russia has lost more than 600 people to terrorist attacks in the past two years. The response from authorities is often swift and brutal. But this is different. At risk, among others, are the lives of hundreds of mothers and children. This time, Russia's counterterrorist resolve is being tested as never before.

"We are all suffering," says Lilia Misikova, waiting in the arms of her 20-year-old daughter, Alena, near the barrier closest to the school. Several of her relatives are among those trapped inside since Wednesday, when more than a dozen armed attackers seized control of the school.

"I think if these bandits could listen to us, the people - I feel that if I could go [to them], I could change their minds," says Mrs. Misikova. "I've got five children myself, and [the militants] certainly have children themselves. Maybe they would listen."

"We are hoping for the best, but..." Her voice trails off at the thought of the crisis ending in bloodshed, like many others that have gone before.

Townspeople of Beslan, in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, Thursday braced themselves for a drawn-out siege, even as they feared for the health and stamina of their captive loved ones. At press time, the hostage-takers had not allowed any food or water to be delivered.

Russian troop strength has been bolstered, creating a cordon around the school, though military options to this kind of attack have a bloody track record in Russia.

"There is no alternative to dialogue," the regional chief of the internal security service, Valery Andreyev, said. "One should expect long and tense negotiations."

Local official Lev Dzugayev called the release "the first success" and expressed hope for further progress in negotiations. He said between 15 and 24 militants were thought to be in the school, which had students from grades one to 11. Also taken hostage in the standoff were some parents who were bringing their older children to school while carrying with them babies or preschoolers.

President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the hostages' lives. "We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole," he said.

Such words were little consolation for the hundreds keeping vigil on the grounds of the Palace of Culture, behind the police barricade, where the grassy earth, littered with empty, plastic water bottles, has been trod to mud.

Misikova says a neighbor of hers, a policeman, broke down in tears when he saw that his two daughters standing next to the school windows. They were positioned there to deter Russian snipers from firing at the hostage-takers.