'For every one of us you kill, we will wipe out 50 children'
Yesterday should have been a peaceful opportunity to swap stories of the long summer holidays; a day of friendships rekindled and lunch-time games in the sunshine for the 400 children and teachers of Beslan, a small town in North Ossetia.
But from now on, the date of 1 September will remembered in the Caucasus republic as a day of infamy after Chechen fighters stormed into the classrooms of Beslan, took teachers and pupils hostage and threatened to massacre the children.
The attack, which has already claimed at least eight lives, began shortly after the start of the school day. Dressed in black and wearing masks, 17 heavily armed attackers, including at least four women wearing suicide-bomb belts, burst into the building.
Children were placed against windows to deter rescue operations and to stop Russian snipers picking off the terrorists.
Hours later a chilling message was relayed to parents. Kazbek Dzantiyev, of the region's interior ministry, said the hostage-takers had threatened that "for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter 20 [children]".
Sitting, squatting and standing last night, many of the relatives cradled their heads in their hands, barely raising their tear-stained faces to look at passers-by. In what looked like a small adjoining theatre some 200 people sat in seats merely staring at the empty stage. Meanwhile, five minutes away, snipers inside the school took pot shots at anyone approaching as heavily armed troops kept the curious at bay.
Anger and despair prevailed among the relatives: "They should bring back capital punishment," said Ibrahim Gubiev, whose son and daughter were trapped inside. "We the parents are standing here powerless. We can't do anything. The situation is at a dead end. They can't storm the building because if they do suicide bombers will blow the whole place up. Never mind withdrawing our troops from Chechnya. We should send more of them in."
Lev Dzugayev, an aide to North Ossetia's president, said brief contact with the captors indicated they were treating the children "more or less acceptably" and were holding them separately from the adults. Police put the total number of hostages at between 300 and 400. Pupils at the school are aged between seven and 17. The local hospital was caring for at least 11 wounded.
As darkness fell, with no end to the siege in sight, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, was embroiled in the worst crisis of his presidency. The attackers are thought to be Chechen but their demands were unclear. Officials said they had tossed a video tape from a window in which they demanded the release of "comrades in arms", captured in a series of attacks in neighbouring Ingushetia in June that killed more than 90 people.
The authorities closed all roads into Northern Ossetia to prevent rebel reinforcements getting through. They also shut the local airport.
Russian television showed a grim-faced Mr Putin rushing back to Moscow from his holiday home by the Black Sea while the head of the Russian interior ministry went straight to Beslan.
Russia said that America had offered whatever help was needed to deal with the crisis. President George Bush spoke to Mr Putin by telephone. Afterwards a Kremlin statement said: "He [Mr Bush] stressed that the United States is ready to extend support in any form to deal with this new barbaric terrorist act." Russia also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
Fatima Khabolova, a spokeswoman for the regional parliament, said parents of the seized children had videotaped an appeal to Mr Putin to fulfil the terrorists' demands.
A spokesman for the North Ossetia interior ministry said: "The main task is to free the children alive and everybody located there, but the most important thing is the children."
Witnesses near the school reported hearing sporadic gunfire well into the early afternoon. Russian sources said the fighters had opened fire on an armoured troop carrier with a grenade launcher.
The raid came a day after a Chechen female suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow metro station, killing nine people, and just over a week after two airliners were blown out of the sky in southern Russia, killing 90 passengers and crew.
Russia's Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said the country was in a state of war, but "the enemy is unseen and there is no front line".