BESLAN, Russia (AP) – Commandos stormed a school today in
southern Russia and battled separatist rebels holding hundreds of
hostages, as crying children, some naked and covered in blood, fled
through explosions and gunfire. Ninety-five bodies have been
identified, but one official said the death toll could far exceed
150.

The hostage-takers, who had been demanding independence for
Chechnya, fled the assault, took refuge in a nearby house and a
basement in the school compound and traded fire with security
forces. After about 12 hours, the Russian government said
resistance had ended, though four others were still being sought.
Twenty militants were killed, including 10 Arabs, officials
said.

There were reports of at least 100 dead in the school gym. Lines
of dead children and adults could be seen lying on stretchers,
covered with white sheets. Grieving parents and loved ones knelt
beside the dead.

Bodies of children also were laid out under a grove of trees
near a hospital awaiting identification. Nearby anxious crowds
gathered around lists of injured posted on the walls of the
hospital buildings.

Officials at the crisis headquarters said 95 victims have been
identified so far, and Valery Andreyev, the regional Federal
Security Service chief, said 556 people were hospitalized,
including 332 children. Emergency Situations Ministry officials put
the number of hospitalized at 646 – 227 of them children.

Officials said security forces had not planned to assault the
school, where the militants had been holding hostages – up to 1,500
of them, according to one freed captive – in the gymnasium since
Wednesday morning. But the troops’ hand was forced when the
militants set off explosions and began shooting Friday afternoon,
officials said.

A police explosives expert told NTV television that the
commandos stormed the building after bombs wired to basketball
hoops exploded in the gymnasium. A captive who escaped the school
told NTV television that a suicide bomber blew herself up in the
gym.

Troops were engaged in “fierce fighting” for hours with
militants, who still held some hostages, Andreyev said. Three
militants reportedly barricaded themselves in the basement.

Soon after nightfall, a large explosion issued from the school,
and officials at the crisis operations center said later resistance
was over. They said four militants remained at large, but it was
not clear if they held any more hostages.

Among the 20 slain militants were 10 Arabs, Andreyev said. The
Arab presence would support President Vladimir Putin’s contention
that al-Qaida terrorists were involved in the Chechen conflict,
where Muslim fighters have been battling Russian forces in a brutal
war of independence on and off since the early 1990s.

On the campaign trail in Wisconsin, President Bush said the
hostage siege was “another grim reminder” of the lengths to which
terrorists will go.

A hostage who escaped told Associated Press Television News that
the militants numbered 28, including women wearing camouflage
uniforms. The hostage, who identified himself only as Teimuraz,
said the militants began wiring the school with explosives as soon
as they took control. He said they had placed bombs on both
basketball hoops in the gym.

The bomb expert also said the gym had been rigged with
explosives packed in plastic bottles strung up around the room on a
cord and stuffed with metal objects.

The militants stormed the school in Beslan on Wednesday morning
and kept the hundreds of children along with parents who had been
bringing them for the first day of school and other adults in the
sweltering gymnasium, refusing to allow deliveries of food and
water.

“They didn’t let me go to the toilet for three days, not once.
They never let me drink or go to the toilet,” Teimuraz told
APTN.

Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician involved in negotiations with the
militants before they were stormed, called them “very cruel people
… a ruthless enemy.”

“I talked with them many times on my cell phone, but every time
I ask to give food, water and medicine to the hostages they refuse
my request,” Roshal said.

The chaotic climax to the standoff began around 1 p.m. today,
when explosions collapsed part of the school roof and gunfire
erupted from inside the building. Security forces moved in.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Putin’s top aide on Chechnya, said security
forces did not plan to storm the building, but were prompted to
move by the first explosions. Witnesses said the militants opened
fire on fleeing hostages and then began to escape themselves.

Russian forces had held back, perhaps remembering the deadly
outcome two years ago when security troops used nerve gas before
storming a Moscow theater where Chechen terrorists had taken about
800 hostages. The nerve gas debilitated the captors but also was
the cause of most of the 129 hostage deaths.

As the captives escaped the school, residents and troops ran
through the streets, and the wounded were carried off on
stretchers. An Associated Press reporter saw ambulances speeding
by, the windows streaked with blood. Four armed men in civilian
clothes ran by, shouting, “A militant ran this way.”

Soldiers and men in civilian clothes carried children – some
naked, some clad only in underpants, some covered in blood – to a
first-aid station set up behind an armored personnel carrier. One
child had a bandage on her head, others had bandaged limbs. Some
women, newly freed from the school, fainted.

The children drank eagerly from bottles of water given to them
once they reached safety. Many of the children were naked or only
partly clothed because of the stifling heat in the gymnasium.

“I am helping you,” a man dressed in camouflage told a crying
girl. Women gathered around, trying to soothe her, saying “It’s all
right. It’s all right.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the hostage-taking
“barbaric” and “despicable… . The United States stands
side-by-side with Russia in our global fight against
terrorism.”

North Ossetia’s president, Alexander Dzasokhov, said today the
militants had demanded independence for Chechnya, the first
official word connecting the hostage-taking to the conflict that
has fueled Russia’s worst terror attacks.

The militants had reportedly threatened to blow up the building
if authorities tried to storm it, but all indications suggested the
explosions began before the assault.

The hostage-takers’ identities were murky. Lev Dzugayev, a North
Ossetian official, said the attackers might be from Chechnya or
Ingushetia. Law enforcement sources in North Ossetia and
Ingushetia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers
were believed to include Chechens, Ingush, Russians and a North
Ossetian suspected of participating in the Ingushetia violence.

Insurgents fought an earlier war for Chechen independence, a
conflict that ended in stalemate. In the years since, the rebels
and their sympathizers have increasingly taken to assaults and
attacks outside the tiny republic.

The school seizure came a day after a suspected Chechen suicide
bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing
nine people, and just over a week after 90 people died in two
nearly simultaneous plane crashes that are suspected to have been
blown up by bombers also linked to Chechnya.

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