Sept. 3, 2004 — By Richard Ayton and Oliver Bullough
BESLAN, Russia (Reuters)
One hundred or more people were killed when Russian troops stormed a school Friday in a chaotic battle to free parents, teachers and children who had been held hostage for 53 hours by Chechen separatists.Update: I don't know what happened to this post. It should have appeared here early this morning. When I returned home and checked the blog, it was not here. If it had been one of my usual dopey half-wit posts, I wouldn't have minded, but this is serious as hell.
Naked children ran for safety, screaming amid machinegun fire and explosions while attack helicopters clattered overhead.
Julian Manyon, a reporter for Britain's ITV television news, said his cameraman had seen into the gutted gymnasium of the school in Beslan, in the North Ossetia region adjoining Chechnya, after the hostage-takers left.
"Our cameraman ... told me that in his estimation there are as many as 100 dead bodies, I am afraid, lying on the smoldering floor of the gymnasium where we know that a large number of the hostages were being held," he said. The Russian Interfax news agency reported a similar number.
Tass news agency said there were more than 400 wounded, and agencies said at least seven people had been dead on arrival at hospital.
Rebels fled with soldiers in pursuit.
The authorities said events forced their hand after insisting from the outset they would not resort to violence.
Manyon said police had told him some children had tried to escape, and that when the captors fired and chased them, the troops opened fire and the battle began. Moments earlier, authorities said they had sent a vehicle to fetch the bodies of people killed in Wednesday's seizure of the school.
"No military action was planned. We were planning further talks," the regional head of the FSB security service, Valery Andreyev, told RTR television.
In the ensuing chaos, children ran from the building or were carried by soldiers. Stripped to their underwear after two days without food or drink in a stiflingly hot and crowded school, they gulped bottles of water and waited in a daze for relatives as gunfire crackled around them.
"I smashed the window to get out," one boy with a bandaged hand told Russian television. "People were running in all directions ... They (the rebels) were shooting from the roof."
The outcome of the siege may have repercussions for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000 on a promise to restore order in Chechnya after years of violent rebellion and hostage-takings similar to the one in Beslan.
Some 129 hostages and 41 rebels died when Putin sent troops to overpower Chechen rebels who had seized a Moscow theater in 2002. But the violence in the region and elsewhere in Russia has continued.
A North Ossetian Interior Ministry source told Interfax the guerrillas, believed to number about 40, had split into three groups. About five had remained in the school while a larger group had tried to break out of the city, and others tried to flee by merging with the hostages.
Interfax said more than 10 of the captors were killed.
Officials had said some 500 people were being held in the school in North Ossetia, but released hostages said the number could be nearer to 1,500 people lying on top of one another in increasingly desperate conditions.
Izvestia said 860 pupils attended School No.1. But the number of people on the campus would have been swollen by parents and relatives attending the first-day ceremony traditional in Russian schools.
Alexander Dzasokhov, president of the province of North Ossetia, said earlier the masked gunmen had demanded an independent Chechnya, the first clear link between them and the decade-long separatist rebellion in the neighboring province.
One unidentified woman freed Thursday told Izvestia that during the night children occasionally began to cry:
"Then the fighters would fire in the air to restore quiet. In the morning they told us they would not give us anything more to drink because the authorities were not ready to negotiate."
Attacks linked to Chechen separatists have surged in recent weeks as Chechnya elected a head for its pro-Moscow administration to replace an assassinated predecessor.
Last week, suicide bombers were blamed for the near-simultaneous crash of two passenger planes in which 90 people died. This week, in central Moscow, a suicide bomber blew herself up, killing nine people.
Russian media have speculated that the gunmen could belong to separatist forces under Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush who is believed to have led a mass assault on Ingushetia in June.
A representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in London repeated denials of involvement by forces loyal to him and condemned the hostage-takers.
"This is a monstrous act ... There is no way to justify what they have done," Akhmed Zakayev, the representative, told Channel 4 news.
Up to 16 people were believed to have been killed in the early stages of the assault.
Update 2: The Russians are saying that among the dead terrorists (if anyone calls them "militants", they are misinformed, stupid assholes) are 10 bodies identified as Arab. What a shock is that?