School seized by terrorists in Russia

Thursday, September 2, 2004

BESLAN, Russia -- Armed militants with explosives strapped to their bodies stormed a Russian school in a region bordering Chechnya on Wednesday, corralling hundreds of hostages -- many of them children -- into a gymnasium and threatening to blow up the building if surrounding Russian troops attacked.

Casualty reports varied widely. At least two people were confirmed killed, including a school parent, but an official in the command operation said on condition of anonymity early today that 16 people were killed -- 12 inside the school, two who died in a hospital and two others whose bodies still lay outside and could not be removed because of gunfire. The official said 13 were wounded.

Camouflage-clad special forces carrying assault rifles encircled Middle School No. 1 in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Earlier, a little girl in a flowered dress fled the school holding a soldier's hand; officials said about a dozen other people managed to escape by hiding in a boiler room.

A militant sniper took position on a top floor of the three-story school, and hours into the standoff Russian security officials used a phone number they were given and began negotiations with the hostage-takers -- widely believed linked to Chechen rebels suspected in a string of deadly attacks that appeared connected with last Sunday's presidential election in the war-ravaged republic.

With violence spreading across the country, many Russians worry about their safety. Official talk of increasing security after terrorist attacks is dismissed by many, and while tight measures were put in place in North Ossetia after the hostage crisis, few signs of major changes have been visible elsewhere.

The recent bloodshed is a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush Chechnya's rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond the republic's borders.

"In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters before the hostage-taking.

From inside the school, the militants sent out a list of demands and threatened that if police intervened, they would kill 50 children for every hostage-taker killed and 20 children for every hostage-taker injured, Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the North Ossetia region's Interior Ministry, was quoted as telling the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard throughout the standoff. One girl lay wounded on the school grounds, but emergency workers could not approach because the area was coming under fire, said regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev.

There were other conflicting casualty reports.

The crisis began after a ceremony marking the first day of Russia's school year, when students often accompanied by parents arrive with flowers for their new teachers. The school covers first to 11th grade, but Dzgoyev said that most of the children taken hostage were under 14 years old.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the attackers drove up in a covered truck similar to those used for military transport. Gunfire broke out, and at least three teachers and two police were wounded, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesman for southern Russia.

Most of the hostages were herded into the school gym, but others -- primarily children -- were ordered to stand at the windows, he said. He said most of the militants were wearing suicide-bomb belts.

At least 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building's boiler room during the raid, said Ruslan Ayamov, spokesman for North Ossetia's Interior Ministry. Media reports suggested that as many as 50 other children fled in the chaos as the attackers were the raiding the school.

Hours after the seizure, the militants sent out a blank videotape, a message saying "Wait" and a note with a cell phone number, Russian officials and media said. A federal security official said "for a long time we could not make contact" with the attackers, but that authorities reached them by phone and that "negotiations are being held now."

The federal security official said there might be 120 to 300 captives, while an official at the Emergency Situations Ministry branch for southern Russia said authorities believed the number was 336. Earlier, officials had said up to 400 people were taken captive.

"The main task is to free the children alive -- and everybody located there, but the most important thing is the children," he said. He said the hostage-takers had refused offers of food and water.

Lev Dzugayev, an aide to North Ossetia's president, said brief contact with the captors indicated they were treating the children "more or less acceptably" and were holding them separately from the adults.

Dzugayev said the attackers might be from Chechnya or another neighboring region, Ingushetia; relations between Ingush and Ossetians have been tense since an armed conflict in 1992. But in Washington, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said the hostage-takers were believed to be Chechen rebels.

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