Heavily armed fighters who seized a school here in southern Russia released roughly two dozen hostages on Thursday, all women and children, some of them only babies. Their release was the first sign that negotiators had made progress in their efforts to end the siege peacefully after the fighters rebuffed several offers, including safe passage out of the city. Senior officials here in North Ossetia ruled out the immediate use of force to free the hostages, believed to include more than 350 students, parents and teachers inside Middle School No. 1. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, making his first public statements on the crisis, said that Russia's first priority was the safety of those being held hostage. The first freed hostages - 25 in all, according to a list posted by officials - emerged from the schoolhouse around 4:30 p.m. after nearly a day of intermittent negotiations and occasional eruptions of gunfire and explosions. About 90 minutes before the release, a grenade, fired from a launcher inside the school, landed in an apartment courtyard about 200 meters from the school. No one was wounded, but each explosion and crackle intensified an atmosphere of fear and frustration that continued into the night. After a nervous halt in communications with the fighters, which raised fears of a complete breakdown in negotiations, the talks resumed again on Thursday afternoon. Officials now say they believe the attackers are linked to the separatists that have been fighting Russian forces in Chechnya for nearly a decade, though no group has publicly claimed responsibility for the school siege, informs the International Herald Tribune. According to NEWS, thousands of relatives are maintaining a helpless vigil at the front of a Russian school near Chechnya as the hostage drama involving 200 children entered its second terrifying day. Militants last night released 31 people in the first sign of a break in the stalemate. However, two large explosions only an hour before raised the anguish of weeping relatives who gathered to pray for the hostages – 354 children, parents and teachers. The rescue operation's headquarters said militants fired grenade launchers at two cars that had apparently driven too close to the building. Neither car was hit. Earlier, the hostage-takers were offered safe passage out of the region and, during three hours of negotiations, were also asked to exchange the trapped children – some as young as five – for adults. Anxious parents paced out a second night on Friday near a school in southern Russia where militants held hundreds of children and adults at gunpoint after threatening to blow up the building. With the clock ticking for President Vladimir Putin to solve the crisis, few security experts forecast a bloodless end to the siege, the latest violent attack in a fortnight following the bombing of two airliners and a Moscow metro station. The release on Thursday of 26 children and women, including babies carried out by soldiers in camouflage, did little to ease the nerves of those waiting for news of at least 350 hostages. Little is known about the loyalties or demands of the 16 to 20 men and women who seized the school during back-to-school festivities, traditionally attended by relatives and parents. The hostage-taking bears the hallmarks of Chechen separatists, although their main leaders deny involvement, publishes Reuter.
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