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Hundreds at Russian School Held

As many as 354 are captive near Chechnya, and up to nine have died. The attackers vow to kill 50 children for each comrade lost.

September 02, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BESLAN, Russia — Attackers armed with guns and bombs seized a school in a region near Chechnya on Wednesday, holding as many as 354 students, teachers and others hostage and vowing to execute 50 children for any one of their comrades killed.

The crisis began as parents were dropping off their children, many dressed in new clothes for the first day of classes at Middle School No. 1. Police had to fight back parents who were desperate to get to their children.

As many as nine civilians were reported killed, including one hostage-taker and a father who ran after a child who was taken hostage, Russian officials said. At least 10 people were wounded.

"One body is lying near the entrance to the school. Two others are on the road near a fence. The attackers are not allowing anyone to collect the bodies. They open fire when anyone tries to approach them," an unidentified official of the local Interior Ministry told Itar-Tass news agency.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Putin statement -- An article in Thursday's Section A about the hostage crisis at a Russian school misstated when President Vladimir V. Putin said, "We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons and destroy them." Putin made the comment about terrorists before news of the hostage-taking broke, not after.

The hostage-takers have vowed that "for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children, and for every injured fighter, 20," Kazbek Dzantiyev, interior minister for the republic of North Ossetia, told the agency.

Suspicion focused on rebels from the neighboring separatist republic of Chechnya -- and militants from neighboring Ingushetia -- who have been blamed for explosions that brought down two Russian planes last week and for other attacks that have killed hundreds of people in Russia in the last two years.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, said the attackers were demanding the release of Chechen rebels and militants from Ingushetia who had been rounded up by police after an attack by insurgents in the Ingush capital in June. They also appeared to be demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

"Everything possible must be done to release these children, and we are doing it," Peskov said. "But these demands are very big, very general. They are the kind of things that cannot be met" even if the government wanted to, he said.

Officials later told Russian news agencies that the hostage-takers demanded to speak with four people: North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov; Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov; a Chechen member of Russia's parliament, Aslanbek Aslakhanov; and Moscow pediatrician Leonid Rochal.

Rochal played a key role as an intermediary in the 2002 seizure of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater by Chechen militants, and he spoke to the attackers for several hours this time.

Russian news services said Rochal forwarded a government offer to guarantee the hostage-takers safe passage through Ingushetia to Chechnya, and another offer to exchange the child hostages for adults.

But those offers were apparently rejected, and the attackers hung up the phone at 3 a.m.

Putin sounded defiant after he quickly returned to Moscow from a holiday on the Black Sea.

"We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons and destroy them," he said, according to Interfax news agency.

Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for the presidential administration in North Ossetia, said in a telephone interview that the attackers appeared to have herded the hostages into the school gymnasium and planted 15 to 20 explosive devices inside.

Authorities said there were about 17 attackers, some of them wearing explosive belts.

"For us right now, the biggest problem is to contain the civilians who are trying to get to the school. The entire town is out in the streets," Dzugayev said.

Russia is reeling from a series of attacks that have occurred in little more than a week, including the near-simultaneous crashes of the two airliners, the killing of at least 19 police and troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny, a bus stop bombing and a suicide bomb attack near a downtown Moscow subway station.

At least 122 people have died since Aug. 21, in addition to at least 50 Chechen insurgents and an unknown number of civilians killed in raids by Russian troops in Grozny.

"In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov told journalists in Moscow.

None of the previous attacks matched the harrowing images of the school hostage crisis. Russian television showed a terrified girl of about 7 being dragged from the school in the initial minutes of the attack by an apparent rescuer in a flak jacket.

Authorities said several older students were able to escape early on after hiding in a boiler room.

One 14-year-old, who asked not to be identified because he still had a brother and a sister inside, said he was among 22 students who were able to run away just as the attack began.

It was about 20 minutes before school was to begin when "all of a sudden I heard some volleys of fire," he said. "We moved to see what was happening, and I saw a man wearing a mask walking and firing in the air."

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