Child hostages test Russia's antiterror response
Clutching a blanket-wrapped bundle, the mother dashed across the street toward waiting Russian soldiers.
And she was free.
By instinct, the crowd of hundreds of family members - red-eyed from two days of heartbreaking vigil 150 yards from the school where some 350 of their children and relatives have been taken hostage - surged past a security cordon to get a better look.
Then another woman dashed to freedom, and another. At least 31 people were let go Thursday, raising hopes that more lives might be saved and a negotiated end might be achieved in this hostage drama.
Russia has lost more than 600 people to terrorist attacks in the past two years. The response from authorities is often swift and brutal. But this is different. At risk, among others, are the lives of hundreds of mothers and children. This time, Russia's counterterrorist resolve is being tested as never before.
"We are all suffering," says Lilia Misikova, waiting in the arms of her 20-year-old daughter, Alena, near the barrier closest to the school. Several of her relatives are among those trapped inside since Wednesday, when more than a dozen armed attackers seized control of the school.
"I think if these bandits could listen to us, the people - I feel that if I could go [to them], I could change their minds," says Mrs. Misikova. "I've got five children myself, and [the militants] certainly have children themselves. Maybe they would listen."
"We are hoping for the best, but..." Her voice trails off at the thought of the crisis ending in bloodshed, like many others that have gone before.
Townspeople of Beslan, in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, Thursday braced themselves for a drawn-out siege, even as they feared for the health and stamina of their captive loved ones. At press time, the hostage-takers had not allowed any food or water to be delivered.
Russian troop strength has been bolstered, creating a cordon around the school, though military options to this kind of attack have a bloody track record in Russia.
"There is no alternative to dialogue," the regional chief of the internal security service, Valery Andreyev, said. "One should expect long and tense negotiations."
Local official Lev Dzugayev called the release "the first success" and expressed hope for further progress in negotiations. He said between 15 and 24 militants were thought to be in the school, which had students from grades one to 11. Also taken hostage in the standoff were some parents who were bringing their older children to school while carrying with them babies or preschoolers.
President Vladimir Putin pledged to do everything possible to save the hostages' lives. "We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole," he said.
Such words were little consolation for the hundreds keeping vigil on the grounds of the Palace of Culture, behind the police barricade, where the grassy earth, littered with empty, plastic water bottles, has been trod to mud.
Misikova says a neighbor of hers, a policeman, broke down in tears when he saw that his two daughters standing next to the school windows. They were positioned there to deter Russian snipers from firing at the hostage-takers.
Such stories abound, circulating among brooding clusters of family, who clutch handkerchiefs in their distress, hoping that their prayers will see their children home.
"If we could, we would exchange ourselves for the children," vows Zurab Daimazov, a young man in the crowd.
"We would all go [in their places], to save them," adds another woman.
"If they even touch one of the children, there will be a war here," says Yannick Tavitov, a young man with a short beard. "[The hostage-takers] are not human beings. They should be shot."
"No, not shot," interjects Murzat Saloyev, a mustachioed Ossetian whose son, Kazik, became a hostage on his first day of sixth grade. "They should be cut to pieces."
Aza Misikova spoke tearfully of her brother's crazy day. He and his wife took their son, Murat, to first grade. Her brother went to the car to fetch a camera to capture the momentous occasion and the shooting erupted, wounding him, and leaving his wife and son hostages.
For some, the wait is turning to anger - and questions about how such an attack could occur. Many speak of feeling more vulnerable than ever, despite a decade of war in nearby Chechnya.
One poster held above the crowd, read: "Putin, release our children!"
"Please don't scream, keep quiet," says Uruzmax Ogoyev, a local security official. "Have patience, remember that when we gather into such a big crowd, we are a good target."
"We have so many security and police - every sixth person belongs to one of these structures - but not one will take responsibility," says an exasperated Yuri Petrosa, a pensioner. "We can't understand how [this terror attack] could happen, but there should be people who do know how it could happen."
Despite the agony of uncertainty, many relatives and friends just hung their heads in silence Thursday. As the day dragged into nightfall, there some good news.
Oksana Pukhova says she will never forget the joy she felt when she collected her two kindergartners - pupils at another school - and the relief on the faces of other parents on Wednesday, as their picked up their children.
But that moment of personal relief has been tempered by a deep and collective shock in Beslan.
"What did you feel after September 11? We feel the same here," say Mrs. Pukhova. "It's not our pain alone, it's the pain of the whole world. National differences don't matter [to terrorists].
"We have felt such a shock. Now [terrorism] is directed at children - how could they not even give food for them to eat? They are sadists," says Pukhova, a teacher with brown hair pulled back tightly. "We hope there will be no storming [of the building] and no violence."
But those possibilities are haunting a mother at the last barricade before the besieged school. "We always hoped [an attack] would never happen here, but now we expect everything," says Mrs. Misikova, holding Alena tighter.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.