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Armed Militants Release Some Hostages in Southern Russia - 2004-09-02


Armed militants holding hundreds of people hostage in southern Russia have freed around 30 women and children. The release comes as officials seek to hold more talks with the armed group holding the hostages inside the school.

The attackers allowed two groups of women and children, including four infants, to leave the school where they've been holding hundreds of people hostage since Wednesday.

Their release caused scenes of joy among the anxious parents who have been awaiting word on their loved ones inside the school.

Regional officials said the former president of nearby Insughetia, Ruslan Aushev, helped mediate the release with the militants. Mr. Aushev is a respected figure in the troubled Caucasus Mountain region. Just a few hours before, two explosions were heard near the school, apparently after militants fired grenade launchers at two cars which approached the building.

President Vladimir Putin and other officials have ruled out the use of force for now, saying the lives of the hostages are paramount.

In a televised appearance for the first time since the siege began, Mr. Putin said every effort will be made to end the crisis peacefully.

"Our main task now is to save the life and health of those who have ended up as hostages," he said. "All the actions of our forces, who are dealing with freeing the hostages, will be devoted to solving this task."

Hundreds of Russian troops have surrounded the school building as various other negotiators attempt to reason with the militants, including a prominent pediatrician who helped get some children released during the siege at a Moscow theater two years ago.

That incident ended when troops pumped in a knock-out gas that immobilized Chechen fighters inside, but it also led to the deaths of over 100 hostages.

The identity of the militants in the school isn't entirely clear, but some officials have said there are indications they may have links with Chechnya's most notorious rebel commander, Shamil Basayev, who claimed responsibility for the theater siege.

The school seizure came one day after a suicide bombing in Moscow and a week after two airliners crashed in southern Russia, acts that have been blamed on suicide bombers from Chechnya.

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