- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

BESLAN, Russia — Armed militants with explosives strapped to their bodies stormed a Russian school in a region bordering Chechnya yesterday, corralling hundreds of hostages — many of them children — into a gymnasium and threatening to blow up the building if surrounding Russian troops attacked. At least two persons were killed, including a parent.

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.

Valery Andreyev, federal security chief for North Ossetia, estimated there might be 120 to 300 hostages. Other reports said there were as many as 400.

A militant sniper took a position on the 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.

The armed group is believed to be linked to Chechen rebels suspected in a string of deadly attacks coinciding with Sunday’s presidential election in the war-ravaged republic.

More than 1,000 people, including many distraught parents, crowded outside police cordons demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.

The hostage-taking came less than 24 hours after a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station that killed at least nine persons, and just over a week after near-simultaneous explosions blamed on terrorism caused two Russian planes to crash, killing all on board.

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.

“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.

Mr. Putin for the second time in a week interrupted his working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and returned to Moscow to deal with the unfolding crisis.

President Bush called the Russian president and said the United States is prepared to give any help needed to resolve the situation, the Kremlin said.

Mr. Bush emphasized that Washington and Moscow are fighting international terrorism shoulder to shoulder, the Kremlin spokesman added.

At the United Nations, Russia called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council, which immediately scheduled consultations on the school seizure and other issues.

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 conflicting casualty reports.

Itar-Tass, citing local hospitals, said one person died at the scene and seven in hospitals. Mr. Dzgoyev put the death toll at four, and Mr. Andreyev, the federal security chief in the area, later said two civilians were killed — including a school parent — and two wounded. There were reports that one attacker had been killed.

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 grade to 11th grade, but Mr. 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, a police spokesman for southern Russia said.

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 raiding the school.

Mr. Dzgoyev said the attackers might be from Chechnya or another neighboring region, Ingushetia; relations between Ingush and Ossetians have been tense since a conflict in 1992.

In their list of demands, the attackers sought talks with regional officials and a well-known pediatrician, Leonid Roshal, who aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, police said. Mr. Andreyev said Dr. Roshal would take part in negotiations.

They also demanded the release of fighters detained over a series of attacks on police facilities in Ingushetia in June, Itar-Tass reported, citing regional officials.

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