BESLAN, Russia - Russia's war in the Caucasus is a military campaign as well as a clash of cultures and an ancient ethnic struggle. In this farm town, on the plains at the foot of the Caucasus, it is now also a family affair.
Hundreds of people - mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles - surrounded Middle School No. 1 yesterday, where about 20 guerrillas continued to hold hundreds of hostages, most of them schoolchildren.
Relatives gathered on the lawns of the town's pink Palace of Culture like people on a grim picnic. Others loitered with desperate aimlessness in the streets lined with red brick buildings roofed in tin. Everyone in the town of 30,000 seemed to be related to one of the hostages - most under age 14.
On Wednesday, the guerrillas scrambled across the railroad tracks and shot their way into the school, killing at least 12 people, wounding 17 and herding their captives into the gym. Children were paraded in front of windows, to deter firing by government forces who surrounded the five-story building.
A few freed, many held
Yesterday, the hostage-takers allowed in some water and let go at least 25 women and young children.
But nothing really changed: Hundreds of hostages remained inside, and the guerrillas still threatened to kill them if soldiers and security officers attempted a rescue.
The gunmen refused what officials said was an offer of safe passage out of the country in exchange for release of the hostages, but talks continued last night. The hostage-takers were said to include Chechens and Ingush, nationalities embroiled in Russia's long-running war in the Caucasus.
A day of tension
Scores of civilians outside the school complicated the government's choices by arming themselves with automatic rifles, raising the risk of a shooting spree if Russian authorities tried to free the hostages by storming the building.
Tensions were raised by occasional bursts from automatic weapons. Two loud explosions punctuated the afternoon, when guerrillas apparently launched grenades at two cars that strayed too close to the building. Neither was hit.
The streets of Beslan were filled with half-whispered conversations, sobs and a few voices raised in anger and frustration. Women stood in clusters with their arms folded. Men squatted on their haunches, rubbing reddened eyes, as if at a deathly quiet family reunion.
Tamik Akhadikov, a 20-year- old soldier, has a 14-year-old sister and a 13-year-old brother in the school. He was all the more anxious because the hostage-takers had initially refused shipments of food and water. He was in Vladikavkaz, 12 miles away, when someone on the street told him on Wednesday that the school had been seized. He drove to Beslan and has remained here, pacing around the House of Culture, ever since.
"I think it will end well," said a thin and haggard Akhadikov. "But I still can't believe that it happened."
Chechens, or not?
It still wasn't clear yesterday exactly who the guerrillas are. By some accounts, they report to Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. Others said they are Ingush, or Ossetian Muslims. Like many, Akhadikov suspected that separatists from the neighboring republic of Chechnya were behind the siege.
"Who else could have done this?" he asked.
`Waiting for some news'
Margarita Yesenova, 26, teaches the Ossetian language at School No. 8. She was standing with other teachers and students Wednesday morning when gunfire interrupted speeches marking the opening day of school.
Two of her nephews, a sixth-grader and a 10th-grader, were among the scores of children being held. "Since then we've just stood here," she said, "waiting for some news."
In late afternoon, the crowd surged toward police barriers, after three women appeared in the distance, holding infants. A BMW with police plates and blacked-out windows picked up the former hostages and carried them past the crowd. A man put his face against the window as the vehicle moved slowly past, desperate to see inside.
Someone carried a hand-lettered sign, addressed to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, which said, "Putin, release our children!" On the other side, the sign disputed official estimates that put the number of hostages at around 350. "Putin!!! There are not less than 800 hostages!"
Late in the afternoon, officials began reading a list of the dead. Some people began wailing.
"Please don't scream. Keep quiet," said Uruzmax Ogoev, secretary of North Ossetia's security council. "Remember that when we gather in such a big crowd we are a good target."
Then a woman posted the names of 31 women and children released as a result of talks between the guerrillas and Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia.
People in the crowd talked of their desire for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. All urged authorities to comply with the gunmen's demands, which include an end to the fighting in Chechnya, release of suspected guerrillas arrested after a raid in neighboring Ingushetia and safe passage out of Beslan.