Author`s name Pravda.Ru

Russian commandos are hunting down hostage-takers

Militants and special forces settled into an uneasy standoff at a school in southern Russia yesterday as President Vladimir Putin vowed to make the safety of more than 300 hostages his government's highest priority.

Despite the release of more than 30 women and children, gunfire and explosions rang out periodically during the siege's second day. But the President and other officials ruled out using force to dislodge the 40 armed men and women who stormed Middle School No. 1 in the North Ossetian town of Beslan.

"Our main task is to save the life and health of those who have ended up as hostages. All the actions of our forces . . . will be devoted to solving this task," Mr. Putin said in his first public comments on the incident, apparently shying from the type of military response that ended a similar hostage-taking incident at a Moscow theatre almost two years ago.

"It is horrible, both because there are children among hostages and because it can explode a fragile balance of inter-[religious] and international relations in the region. We will do everything that we can to avert such a development of the situation," inform Globe and Mail.

According to CNN Russian troops have stormed and secured a school in southern Russia where an armed gang, believed to be Chechen rebels, took hundreds of children, parents and teachers hostage.

Regional emergency officials told The Associated Press that 250 hostages had been wounded, including 180 children, during gunfire and explosions at a school.

The Interfax news agency says at least five children have been killed.

Russian commandos are hunting down hostage-takers -- including two women terrorists dressed in white -- trying to flee and meld into the population. A media report said 13 militants had managed to escape.

Huge explosions could be heard and smoke seen near the school and small arms fire continue to crackle.