Hundreds of hostages die at Russian school

Saturday, September 4, 2004

BESLAN, Russia -- The three-day hostage siege at a school in southern Russia ended in chaos and bloodshed Friday, after witnesses said Chechen militants set off bombs and Russian commandos stormed the building. Hostages fled in terror, many of them children who were half-naked and covered in blood. Officials estimated the death toll at more than 200.

Early today, 531 people remained hospitalized, including 283 children -- 92 of the youngsters in "very grave" condition, health officials said.

Sixty-two hours after the hostage drama began during a celebration marking the first day of the school year, the Russian government said resistance had ended. But sporadic gunfire was still heard hours later and authorities said two more militants had been killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the town early today and ordered the borders of North Ossetia, the republic where the school is located, closed while any hostage-takers still on the loose are pursued.

Valery Andreyev, Russia's Federal Security Service chief in the region, said 10 Arabs were among 27 militants who were killed. The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing unidentified security sources, reported the hostage-taking was the work of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who had al-Qaida backing.

Russian authorities said they stormed the building after the militants set off explosions and fired shots as emergency teams approached to collect the bodies of several men killed earlier. They said the hostage-takers had given them permission to take the corpses away. Witnesses quoted by Russian media said the militants opened fire on fleeing hostages and then began to escape themselves.

A police explosives expert told NTV television that the commandos stormed the building after bombs wired to basketball hoops exploded in the gymnasium, where many of the children were being held. A captive who escaped told NTV that a suicide bomber blew herself up in the gym.

Channel One TV reported three of the attackers were arrested after trying to escape in civilian dress. Four militants were believed to have escaped. A member of an elite security unit died saving two young girls, ITAR-Tass reported.

Putin's adviser on Chechnya, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, said security forces had not planned to storm the building, but were prompted to move by the first explosions about 1 p.m. Friday. Officials had pledged not to use force.

Alla Gadieyeva, 24, who was taken captive with her 7-year-old son and mother, said the militants displayed terrifying brutality from the start. One gunman, whose pockets were stuffed with grenades, held up the corpse of a man just shot in front of hundreds of hostages and warned: "If a child utters even a sound, we'll kill another one."

When children fainted from lack of sleep, food and water, their masked and camouflaged captors simply sneered, she said, adding that adults implored children to drink their own urine in the intolerable heat of the gym.

Gadieyeva told of three days of unspeakable horror -- of children so frightened they couldn't sleep, of captors coolly threatening to kill off hostages one by one. The gym where they were held was so cramped there was hardly room to move.

"We were in complete fear," said Gadieyeva, who spoke as she lay collapsed with exhaustion on a stretcher outside a hospital. "People were praying all the time, and those that didn't know how to pray -- we taught them."

'Balloons popping'

Gadieyeva and her mother, Irina, were in the school courtyard Wednesday seeing off her son, Zaur, on his first day of school when they heard sounds like "balloons popping."

She thought the noise was part of school festivities. But then five masked gunmen burst into the courtyard, shooting in the air and ordering people to get inside the building. Children, parents and teachers -- Gadieyeva estimated there were about 1,000 in all -- were corralled into a corner on the ground floor and then herded into the gymnasium.

For the rebels, the first order of business was confiscating cell phones. They smashed the phones, then delivered a warning: "If we find any mobile phones, we will shoot 20 people all around you."

On the first day, people got a tiny bit of water to drink, but no food. After that, Gadieyeva said, nothing.

When she asked the rebels for water for her mother, they laughed at her.

"My mother was terrified, and I thought she was having a heart attack. When I saw my son, my mother ... go unconscious, so tired, so thirsty, I wanted it all to come to an end," she said.

During the ordeal, Zaur became so traumatized that he would flinch whenever someone touched him, or even brushed by him, she said. As with most of the other children, his only spells of sleep were the times he fell unconscious from thirst and exhaustion.

As Gadieyeva spoke, she had not yet been reunited with her mother or son, although authorities confirmed to her that they were alive.

Under a grove of trees outside the school, white sheets covered dead bodies, including those of children, on lines of stretchers. Grieving parents and loved ones knelt beside the dead, some of whom were awaiting identification. Nearby, anxious crowds gathered around lists of injured posted on the walls of the hospital buildings.

As Gadieyeva told her tale, townspeople kept coming up, asking her about the fate of their loved-ones.

A man, around 20, asked Gadieyeva if she knew what had happened to one of the captives, a woman.

She's dead, Gadieyeva replied.

The man bit his lip. He nodded.

And then he turned away.

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