Friday, September 3, 2004

BESLAN, Russia — The three-day hostage siege at a school in southern Russia ended in chaos and bloodshed yesterday, 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 persons 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.

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 Qaeda backing.

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, crowds gathered around lists of injured posted on the walls of the hospital buildings.

The Arab presence among the attackers would support President Vladimir Putin’s contention that al Qaeda terrorists were involved in the Chechen conflict, where Muslim fighters have been battling Russian forces in a war of independence on and off since the early 1990s.

Security sources accused al Qaeda of financing the takeover of the school, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. The report also said an al Qaeda operative, Abu Omar as-Saif, coordinated the financing of the attack.

Mr. Putin’s tough policy on Chechnya, has maintained broad domestic support despite the heavy toll rebel violence has taken in recent years.

The Russian president arrived at the terror-struck town for a surprise visit early today, traveling by car to the local hospital where wounded survivors were being treated, the Interfax news agency reported.

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

Western governments offered sympathy to Mr. Putin at the end of the school siege. But the European Union, in a statement issued once the scale of death became apparent, also wanted an explanation from Russia “how this tragedy could have happened,” Reuters news agency reported.

Officials at the crisis headquarters said 95 victims have been identified so far. Health Ministry officials said the total death toll was more than 200, Interfax reported.

Emergency Situations Ministry officials said earlier 704 persons were hospitalized, including 259 children. Many were severely burned.

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 yesterday 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, said Mr. Andreyev. 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 that resistance was over. They said four militants remained at large, but it was not clear whether they held any more hostages. Channel One TV reported three militants were arrested after trying to escape in civilian dress.

A hostage who escaped said 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,” Mr. Teimuraz said.

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

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Mr. 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 sleeping gas before storming a Moscow theater where Chechen terrorists had taken about 800 hostages. The 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. A 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.

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.”

The school seizure came a day after a suspected Chechen bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine persons, and just over a week after 90 persons 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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