Explosions Rock Russian School

Explosions rock school at center of hostage standoff in southern Russia, smoke rises (AP)

Two explosions rocked the area around a school where heavily armed militants, some strapped with bombs, were holed up for a second day Thursday with about 350 hostages including many children in southern Russia. The explosions came about 10 minutes apart, from the vicinity of the school, followed by a cloud of black smoke. No further details were available and it was impossible to see exactly what happened because police had cordoned off the area. The cause of the explosions was not clear. The militants who stormed the school Wednesday had threatened to blow it up if Russian forces launched an assault to free the hostages — but there was no sign that any operation or battle was underway.

Earlier on Thursday, Valery Andreyev, the Federal Security Service’s chief in North Ossetia, seemed to rule out the immediate use of force. “There is no alternative to dialogue,” the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. “One should expect long and tense negotiations.”
Russian officials had negotiated fruitlessly through the night to end the standoff. Crowds of distraught relatives and townspeople waited helplessly for news of their loved ones, and before the blasts, gunfire occasionally rattled from the area. Earlier Thursday, in his first public comment on the raid, President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the lives of the hundreds of hostages. “We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole,” Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian television during a Kremlin meeting with Jordan King Abdullah II. “What is happening in North Ossetia is horrible.” “It’s horrible not only because some of the hostages are children but because this action can explode even a fragile balance of interconfessional and international relations in the region.”

The school in Beslan, a town of about 30,000, is in North Ossetia, near the republic of Chechnya where separatist rebels have been fighting Russian forces since 1999. Suspicion in the raid fell on Chechen militants although no claim of responsibility has been made. The raid came a day after a suspected Chechen suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine people, and just over a week after 90 people died in two plane crashes that are suspected to have been blown up by suicide bombers also linked to Chechnya. The recent bloodshed is a blow to Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush Chechnya’s rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond the republic’s borders. Heavily armed militants wearing masks descended on Middle School No. 1 shortly after 9 a.m. on the opening day of the new school year Wednesday. About a dozen people managed to escape by hiding in a boiler room, but hundreds of others were herded into the school gymnasium and some were placed at windows as human shields.

The Religion of PeaceTM strikes again.

Update (0940):

Six freed from siege school (ic Berkshire)

Four children and two women are reported to have been freed from the Russian school siege.
Earlier two explosions were heard near the site of the siege not long after President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the lives of more than 350 hostages, including children. The blasts were about 10 minutes apart and rang out from the area of the cordoned-off school, followed by a billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the vicinity of the site. The suicide gunmen and women who seized the school on Wednesday morning had threatened to blow it up if any rescue attempt was made.

As negotiators scrambled to find a way out of the tense stand-off, crowds of distraught relatives and townspeople waited helplessly for news of their neighbours and loved ones, their distress sharpened by the sporadic rattle of gunfire from the cordoned-off crisis site in Beslan, North Ossetia. But as talks via phone continued on-and-off throughout the night and morning, details about who the militants are and what they wanted remained unclear.

Well-known paediatrician Leonid Roshal, who aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theatre by Chechens in 2002, was leading the talks. Russian TV reported that Roshal, whose participation the militants had demanded, offered the gunmen and women a safe corridor out of the school – but the offer was declined.

26 freed in Russia hostage seige (AP)

Militants released 26 women and children Thursday from the school in southern Russia where they are holding more than 350 hostages, the rescue operation’s headquarters said. Lev Dzugayev, an aide to the North Ossetian president, announced the release of three women and three infants. It was not immediately clear if those were counted among the 26 released hostages reported minutes later by the rescue-operation headquarters. Dzugayev called the release “the first success” and expressed hope for further progress in negotiations with the captors that went through the night and into Thursday. As he announced the release, a crowd of hostages’ relatives and friends who have been keeping vigil at the school since the standoff began swarmed around him, trying to find out who was freed.

An Associated Press Television News reporter saw two women and at least three children, the children in the soldiers’ arms, and APTN footage showed five women and three children. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. Russian television showed camouflage-clad men carrying babies, one wrapped in a blanket and one without a shirt. Regional parliamentary spokeswoman Fatima Kabalova said that several elderly women and a group of children were released, but gave no numbers and did not indicate whether she was referring to the infants released. She said the releases were not announced publicly to avoid a crush from media and anxious relatives.

Bizarre.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.