Armed Chechens holding hundreds of hostages in Moscow have threatened to start killing people if their demand for an end to the war in Chechnya is not met.
When word of the threat first broke, dawn was cited as the time the killings would begin. But since then, a Russian negotiator involved in talks with the Chechens said the hostage-takers could act sooner, if leading officials do not come to the negotiating table.
The negotiations involve a member of the Russian parliament, an award-winning Russian journalist, and two Red Cross officials. Russian media report that former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is also involved in the talks, as is the former president of Ingushetia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin late Friday reiterated that he is open to any contacts. He also urged Russians to be unified and strong during what he called this "complex situation."
President Putin, meeting Duma deputies, said it is especially important not to give up to emotions and to evaluate every word and every step. The lives of our citizens may depend on them, he said.
Late Friday, Russia's Deputy Interior Minister said authorities are now considering stopping broadcasters from relaying live pictures from the stand-off site.
The captives have been holed up since late Wednesday and conditions are reported worsening.
By day's end, nearly 20 hostages were freed, including eight children. But a promise to free 75 foreigners among the captives went unfulfilled.
The hostage-takers say they are seeking an end to the war in Chechnya and are prepared to die to help bring that about. The Russian Security Service has offered to ensure that the guerillas are not killed, if they release the hostages unharmed.
With precious few hours to go before dawn, distraught relatives continue to stand vigil outside the theater, attempting to place mobile phone calls to their loved ones trapped inside.