Russian hostage-takers free 26, but still hold hundreds
Heavily-armed militants freed 26 women and children but kept hundreds captive in a school for a second day as officials pledged to avoid force to end a harrowing standoff that bore the hallmarks of a strike by Chechen rebels.
President Vladimir Putin said the safety of the hostages -- children, their parents and teachers -- was his top priority, and described the wave of terror strikes that has rocked Russia recently as an attack on the entire country.
Families and friends of the hostages kept up an agonising round-the-clock vigil outside the school as security forces prevented anyone from crossing the security cordon around the building in this city near war-torn Chechnya.
Officials said contact with the hostage-takers "intensified" during the day on a number of issues, among them an agreement to allow food and water to be delivered to the hostages, believed to number around 330 after the releases.
One official quoted by RIA Novosti news agency said the militants had not communicated their demands and added that Ruslan Aushev, a former president of the Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, had spoken with them in the school.
"Unfortunately, there is not yet a list of demands formulated by the terrorists," said Alan Doyev, spokesman for the North Ossetia interior ministry said.
Doyev said the 26 freed hostages were in stable condition but were suffering from psychological stress.
At one point, two loud explosions were heard in the vicinity of the school. The cause of the blasts was not clear.
An empty passenger bus was driven inside the security perimeter and parked
outside the school, but there was also no explanation for its presence.
One official who spoke to Russian television overnight said the militants had been offered safe passage to Chechnya and a proposal to exchange the children held hostage for adults. That information was not later substantiated.
Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for the president of the North Ossetia republic, said the release of the women and children was a positive signal.
No official has yet apportioned responsibility for the hostage-taking. But it drew comparisons to previous hostage seizures in the Caucasus and Moscow carried out by Chechen rebels.
The most spectacular of those was the capture of some 800 people at a Moscow
theater in October 2002. That standoff ended three days after it began and
resulted in the deaths of more than 40 militants and 129 hostages.
Putin, sitting down to talks at the Kremlin with Jordan's King Abdullah II, said the hostage crisis was part of "a whole series" of attacks directed at the Russian state that could fan religious and ethnic tensions in the Caucasus.
But he also stressed that securing the safe release of the hostages was his number-one priority.
"All these actions are aimed not only against specific Russian citizens but against Russia as a whole," Putin said, adding that Russia would do all in its power to prevent further destabilization in the Caucasus region.
But, he added: "The most important thing is to safeguard and protect the lives of those held hostage."
Separately, an official of Russia's FSB security and intelligence service said authorities were not planning to use force to end the standoff for the time being.
"There is no alternative to dialogue," said the official, Valery Andreyev, quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency.
"We have to expect a long and tense negotiation process," he added.
The Kremlin announced that Putin had decided to postpone an official two-day visit to Turkey in order to remain in Moscow and supervise the crisis.
Russians were reeling from a week of attacks that began on August 25 with a bombing at a bus station followed hours later by an apparent suicide bomb attack that brought down two passenger airliners.
On Tuesday, a female suicide bomber killed nine people including herself when she set off her explosives outside a crowded Moscow subway station.
The attacks have killed a total of 111 people and left more than 50 wounded.