A hostage released from a provincial Russian school said there are at least 1,500 people being held there by armed militants, the Izvestia newspaper reported today, and a local legislator announced a similar figure challenging far-lower official numbers.
Russian officials had said that about 350 people were being held by raiders who seized the school in the North Ossetian city of Beslan on Wednesday.
But a teacher who was among at least 26 women and children released yesterday disputed that.
“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.
Also yesterday, local legislator Azamat Kadykov told a meeting packed with worried relatives and friends that the number of hostages was “more or less 1,000”.
The statements were a new blow to the morale of hostage relatives, who spent the night wracked by hope and dread – buoyed by the release of dozens of women and children but alarmed by grenades fired from the building.
Valery Andreyev, chief of the regional office of the Federal Security Service, meanwhile said that contacts with the hostage-takers had resumed in the morning, following an overnight suspension, but stopped again.
The release of at least 26 hostages yesterday left some Beslan resident convulsed in joy, but many more wracked with disappointment. Men and women wept or hugged each other with relief as a man read the names of the freed hostages over a loudspeaker.
The released hostages included toddlers who were naked, apparently because of stifling heat in the school, where the hostage-takers have refused to allow authorities to deliver water, food and medicine for the captives. The refusal could indicate hostage-takers’ suspicion of being poisoned.
Two explosions were heard from the cordoned-off school area during the night. Lev Dzugayev, an aide to the president of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, said the raiders had fired two grenades, wounding a policeman, ITAR-Tass said.
There was another explosion this morning, as Kadykov and Leonid Rosahal, a pediatrician who has been involved in the negotiations, spoke to the crowd of worried residents.
President Vladimir Putin said everything possible would be done to end the “horrible” crisis and save the lives of the children and adults being held at School No. 1 in Beslan.
But it was uncertain how much either side was willing to give to avoid further bloodshed in the siege – the latest incident in a series of violent attacks believed linked to Russia’s war in Chechnya, which borders North Ossetia.
A dozen people were reported killed by the attackers when the school was captured Wednesday, but one official said Thursday that 16 died.
Reports after the standoff began Wednesday said the attackers demanded the release of people jailed after attacks on police posts in June that killed more than 90 people in Ingushetia, a region between North Ossetia and Chechnya. But officials said Thursday that the hostage-takers had not clearly formulated their demands.
Dzugayev and other officials said 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. An official at the crisis headquarters said another group of five hostages was let go separately.
After seizing the school, the militants reportedly threatened to blow it up if troops tried to rescue the hostages and warned they would kill prisoners if any of their gang was hurt. Authorities estimated 15 to 24 militants held the school.