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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Russia siege goes into third day
A soldier carries a baby after some women and children are freed from the school in south Russia
Very young children were among those released on Thursday
The armed group who are holding hundreds of hostages in a school in North Ossetia have demanded independence for neighbouring Chechnya.

This was reported by the North Ossetian president, Alexander Dzasokhov, as the siege entered its third day.

Authorities are not considering the use of force to resolve the standoff, Mr Dzasokhov added.

Latest reports suggest that 1,000 hostages may be held in the school, rather than the official figure of 354.

On Thursday, 26 women and young children were released, and some of them provided the first details of conditions inside the school.

"You know there are not 300 people in there, but altogether 1,500. People are lying on top of each other," 27-year-old teacher Zalina Dzandarova told the Kommersant newspaper.

"They took some of the injured out of the gym and finished them off right there in the corridor," she said.

Click below for a detailed map of Beslan

The hostage takers have refused to allow food, water and medicine into the building.

Trip wires are believed to have been laid around the school, with the attackers threatening to blow it up if it is stormed by police.

Correspondents say sporadic explosions and gunfire continue to be heard near the school in the town of Beslan.

Hundreds of relatives of those being held inside the school are waiting anxiously outside the security cordon.

One man who has been helping to conduct negotiations, prominent paediatrician Lev Roshal, called this first hostage release a major victory.

31 Aug 2004 - Suicide bomb kills 10 at north Moscow train station
24 Aug 2004 - Two planes crash after leaving same Moscow airport, killing 89
May 2004 - Chechen president killed in blast at stadium in Grozny
Feb 2004 - Bomb attack kills at least 39 people on Moscow underground
Dec 2003 - Female suicide bomber kills five near Moscow's Red Square
But Mr Roshal, who helped to negotiate the release of children during the siege of a Moscow theatre in 2002, warned it was still a drop in the ocean, and that a huge amount of work remained to be done.

"The situation is serious. We have come up against very cruel people," he is quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Officials said the release of the 26 people came after mediation efforts by the former President of the neighbouring region of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev.

First school day

The attackers - both men and women, some wearing bomb belts - struck on Wednesday, the first day of the new school year in Russia.

Many parents and other relatives were inside the school, helping their children celebrate the new year, when the assault began.

The authorities say at least 12 people, including one attacker, have been killed since the building was seized.

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that everything would be done to save the lives of the hostages.

In his first public comments on the crisis, more than 24 hours after it began, President Putin said: "Our main task is, of course, to save the lives and health of those who became hostages.

"All actions of our forces working on the hostages' release will be devoted and be subject to this task exclusively."

The school crisis came a day after a suspected suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people. Last week, the mid-air explosions of two passenger planes left 89 dead.

1 - Main entrance
2 - Area where gunfire began
3 - Hostages are being held in the school gym, which has reportedly been packed with explosives and mines
4 - Side entrance
5 - There have been reports of children being used as human shields at the back windows
6 - As the attack began a number of people hid in the boiler room and later escaped

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