Russia school siege: '26 freed'
Putin says children's safety paramount
Tense standoff at the primary school. CNN's Ryan Chilcote reports
Chechen rebels are blamed for dozens of attacks in recent years.
Attacks call into question some of Putin's policies. CNN's Robin Oakley reports
BESLAN, Russia (CNN) -- At least 26 women and children have been freed by militants holding hundreds more people hostage at a school in southern Russia, Interfax news agency Interfax reports.
It was unclear if that number included the three women and three infants released from the primary school at Beslan, north Ossetia, earlier Thursday. Video showed soldiers carrying the infants, one of whom was naked, into a car.
As suspected Chechen rebels continued to hold more than 350 people captive, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the safety of the hostages, including scores of children, was paramount.
Earlier, the hostage-takers apparently fired on a car outside the school, setting it on fire, officials at the scene said.
"All the actions of our forces ... will be devoted to solving this task," Putin said in nationally televised comments from the Kremlin.
"Our main task is to save the life and health of those who have ended up as hostages," Putin declared.
"There is no question at the moment of opting for force. There will be a lengthy and tense process of negotiation," Valery Andreyev, head of the FSB security service in North Ossetia province, told Reuters.
Similar statements were made when Chechen rebels held hundreds hostage in a Moscow theatre in October 2002 -- then Russian forces used gas to pacify those inside before storming the building.
Hundreds of armed troops in tanks, armored vehicles and on foot have surrounded the school in Beslan, near the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya where rebels and Russian forces have battled each other for a decade.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said four people were killed and nine were wounded in the initial attack on the 11-grade primary school.
Interfax said the hostage-takers had threatened to kill 50 children for each of their number killed by Russian forces and 20 for each wounded.
The hostage-takers reportedly demanded the release of more than two dozen prisoners captured during a raid on Chechens in southern Russia in June and Russian withdrawal of all forces from Chechnya.
Negotiators were reportedly in touch with the hostage-takers -- reported to number around 15 including some women -- but have yet to reach a deal on getting supplies to those inside.
Since the first day of school was scheduled to be a short one, there was no food or water in the building. Those inside have not eaten for more than 35 hours.
CNN's Ryan Chilcote in Moscow reported that pediatrician Leonid Roshal, who aided hostages during the Moscow theater siege, had been flown from Moscow to mediate.
His presence was requested by the rebels but talks had yet to start, Chilcote said.
TIME magazine reporter Paul Quinn-Judge, who is about 100 meters from the school, reported Thursday the hostage-takers had turned off their mobile phones, and were refusing to answer the land line to the school.
The attackers, armed with guns and suicide-bomb belts, seized the school in dramatic fashion Wednesday, the first day of the Russian school year.
The hostages include children, parents and teachers -- and the hostage-takers have threatened to kill the children if an assault is launched.
The children range in age from 7 to 17.
Quinn-Judge reported local residents are disputing one official count of at least 350 children taken hostage, saying the number is closer to 700.
Residents are angry with local officials that they have not been able to confirm how many hostages are inside the school, and heckled one official during a news conference Thursday morning.
"When local officials started to say well, they didn't think there were more than 350 children in the school, people were shouting things like: 'You don't know yet? You can't find out? How big is this city? What do you mean 300? That is a lie -- have you no conscience?'" Quinn-Judge said.
Sporadic gunfire came from the school Thursday, Quinn-Judge reported, although the reason for the gunfire was not clear.
Putin canceled an upcoming trip to Turkey to deal with the standoff, sources in his office told CNN Thursday.
While authorities have been tight-lipped about those behind the attack, Quinn-Judge said the assumption in the community was that they were rebels with links to Chechen Islamic radicals.
'Many of attackers women'
Russian authorities said many of the attackers were women, armed with explosives belts.
The raid was reminiscent of the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, when Chechen rebels took more than 700 hostages, threatened to kill them and demanded an end to the war in Chechnya.
Many of those attackers were women, with explosives belts strapped to their body, while the men were armed with pistols and rifles. Two massive bombs had also been placed in the theater.
That standoff ended when Russian forces piped in poison gas, but more than 120 of the hostages and 41 of the attackers were killed.
The current hostage standoff follows a bloody week in Russia, in which a female suicide bomber Tuesday killed nine people outside a Moscow subway station and two airliners were downed by two suspected Chechen female suicide bombers on August 24, killing all 89 people aboard the planes.
Russian officials have said the new wave of attacks was an attempt at revenge for last weekend's elections in Chechnya in which a Kremlin-backed candidate won the presidency.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the attacks marked a declaration of war.
"It is a different kind of war, where you cannot see your enemy and where there is no front line, but nonetheless this is an entirely real threat," Ivanov told reporters. "Russia is not the only country that faces this new threat."
The Kremlin press agency said U.S. President George Bush called Putin to offer any assistance that could help secure the release of the hostages.