Amid the savagery of the siege, an act of humanity· Release of 31 hostages provides brief respite
· Putin says his priority is to save lives
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, moved yesterday to calm escalating tension in the hostage crisis in the North Ossetian town of Beslan as sporadic gunfire and explosions threatened to rupture delicate negotiations with Chechen gunmen.
Two loud explosions rang out early today near the school where militants were holding hundreds of captives for a second night, and the Interfax news agency reported that a policeman was injured.
The blasts, which sounded like they came from rocket-propelled grenades, punctured a tense calm just after midnight. One projectile hit a street several hundred metres from the school, the other fell in a yard, according to witnesses.
Lev Dzugayev, an aide to the regional president Alexander Dzasokhov, said the hostage takers told authorities that they fired grenades because they thought they saw suspicious movement around the school, which is surrounded by Russian forces,.
Earlier, Mr Putin said his key priority was to save the lives of the 323 children, parents and teachers held hostage in the town's main school.
Yet his pledge and the release of 31 women and children yesterday afternoon did little to reassure the crowds of anguished relatives milling around the barriers. Russian soldiers closed off some roads on one side of the school at 8pm, stoking fears that Moscow was anxious to see an end to the second large-scale hostage crisis to be inflicted by militants in two years.
The mood among the crowds of relatives hardened. Many believed that Moscow was cover ing up the number of hostages inside the school. "It's all disinformation," said Oleg, whose sister and daughter are hostages. "They say 354 hostages, but it's over 500 or 700."
Mr Putin, eager not to ignite tensions among the crowd or in the half-million strong republic in which they live, said: "Our main task is, of course, to save the life and health of those who became hostages. We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole.
"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 interethnic relations in the region." North Ossetia is a Christian Orthodox republic in a region largely dominated by Islam.
Among the thousand-strong crowd around the Palace of Culture that sits at the end of the barricades around the school, the animosity towards the people of Chechnya was palpable. Elderly women muttered in disgust, while Edik, 11, was blunter. "We need to shoot and punish them," he said.
The crowd gasped in relief when officials announced the release of 31 hostages. It provided a respite in a negotiation process that has failed to provide the Kremlin with a badly-needed exit from the standoff. It was secured by Ruslan Aushev, an Afghanistan war hero and former president of the neighbouring Muslim republic of Ingushetia.
At 1.18am yesterday, Leonid Roshal, a paediatrician who had negotiated with hostage-takers in the Moscow theatre siege two years ago, made contact with the gunmen at their request. His offer of a safe exit was refused, NTV reported. He said he was not able to establish what the hostage takers' demands were.
Dawn brought an official admission by the spokesman for the North Ossetian president Mr Dzasokhov that seven had died as the militants entered the building. This report was later contradicted by the Associated Press, who cited an official saying 16 had died, 12 of whom were hostages.
Speculation over the number of hostages held continued to grow. One North Ossetian official was heckled when he tried to tell the crowd a total of 354 people were being held. Most members of the crowd believed the figure was twice as high. One woman who was released from the school yesterday, Alina Kudzayeva, told a friend the true figure was 1,020.
At 1pm, authorities insisted again that the possibility of an operation to storm the school was "out of the question, for the time being". The head of the North Ossetian branch of the Russian security services, the FSB, Valeri Andreev, said: "We are continuing lengthy and intensive negotiations."
Up to six telephone calls between the crisis headquarters and the gunmen were made yesterday, a source close to the negotiating team told the Guardian. A man calling himself Ali answered the phone in the school, the source said.
Explosions and gunshots, whose origins and target were indeterminable, punctuated the day. Relatives shrieked and gasped when a blast sounded across the area at 3pm. Militants had reportedly fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a rescuer's Lada car, thought to have driven too close to the school.
Several accounts last night suggested the women and children had been separated from the male hostages, who had been moved from the sports hall to the second floor of the neighbouring main school building. The gunmen contin ued to refuse offers of food and water for the hostages.
The deteriorating conditions inside the school raised fears that the Putin administration, renowned for its strongman image, might be seeking a swift if bloody exit. The attack is the fourth by suicide bombers against Russian civilian targets in eight days.
Russia's bid to secure UN condemnation of the attacks on Wednesday heightened fears it was shoring up international opinion for a brutal end to the standoff. The White House said it had offered Russia unspecified "assistance".
The identity of the gunmen could not be confirmed despite media reports that the militant Doku Umarov was behind the attack. A spokesman for Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist militant leader, denied his followers were involved.