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Russian Standoff Explodes

Troops Storm School; Death Toll Tops 250

September 04, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BESLAN, Russia — A three-day school hostage ordeal ended in bloodshed and pandemonium Friday when explosions tore apart the gym where more than 1,000 captives were being held, touching off an assault by Russian commandos and fierce gun battles in surrounding streets.

The official death toll was at least 250; more than 100 of the dead were children. In addition, 700 people were injured.

The explosions, apparently set off unintentionally by the hostage-takers, turned the gymnasium into a mass of twisted metal, shattered bones and charred flesh, with at least 100 bodies scattered on the floor. After the blasts, half-naked children weak with thirst, many covered in blood, ran crying from the burning building with their captors in pursuit.

"We were sitting next to the window and talking to each other. And then there were these two explosions. It deafened us, and as soon as the explosions sounded, the entire gym, the floors, the walls and the ceiling, were covered in blood," said Zaur Aboyev, 16. "And I knew it was time to run."

As Russian forces stormed the school complex and hunted for the hostage-takers, some of whom had fled, the sounds of battle filled this small Caucasian town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia for hours.

Russian officials said they had killed 20 hostage-takers, arrested three and believed three others were at large. A furious mob killed at least one man they believed to be a hostage-taker.

"Today has only brought death, nothing else," said Rimma Gazzayeva, who helped drag corpses -- possibly of people caught in the crossfire -- off the streets.

The militants who seized the school Wednesday, the first day of classes, were believed to be separatists from the nearby republic of Chechnya. Guerrillas in that republic have been fighting for independence from Russia for a decade.

The violent end to the 56-hour crisis stunned a nation in which a series of major terrorist attacks believed linked to Chechen separatists have killed about 370 people in the last two weeks. In addition to the school takeover, 90 people died in near-simultaneous downings of two airliners, a suicide bomber killed nine near a Moscow subway station, and militant attacks on police and government police in Chechnya's capital left at least 19 dead.

The events have renewed pressure on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to resolve the situation in Chechnya, where two wars in 10 years have virtually leveled the capital, left thousands dead and brought international condemnation upon Russia for extensive human rights abuses by its soldiers.

Putin made no public statement about the bloody end of the standoff Friday.

Early today, the president visited survivors in Beslan's hospital. Television showed him standing stiffly as he patted a patient's arm.

Putin has long contended that Arab terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have played a role in the violence in Chechnya, where a majority of people are Muslim. Russia's Federal Security Service reported that 10 of the hostage-takers at the school were Arabs, which if substantiated would boost Putin's assertions.

Russian authorities said Friday that they believed the siege had been masterminded by Chechnya's most notorious warlord, Shamil Basayev, an Islamic militant whose funding channels are believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.

President Bush condemned the bloodshed. "This is yet another grim reminder of the lengths to which terrorists will go to threaten the civilized world," he told a campaign rally in Wisconsin.

Hostages described three days of sweltering heat in the crowded gym with little food and less water. Many said they had drunk urine from their own shoes and chewed the leaves of school plants to relieve their thirst.

One boy, 10-year-old Stanislav Tsarakhov, said another boy was so thirsty he approached one of the hostage-takers who was holding an assault rifle with a bayonet attached.

"The boy went to him and asked for a little water, and instead of giving him water, he drove his bayonet through the boy's body," Tsarakhov said. "I don't know if he died."

Tsarakhov's life may have been saved when a woman he had never met threw herself on top of him after the first big explosion, shielding him from the second. It is not known what happened to the woman.

The captives described three days of terror as the hostage-takers fired guns into the air to silence the children's constant crying.

"They didn't allow us to sleep. They kept us awake all the time. They would pour our own urine on our heads," said Arsen Khasigov, 11, whose mother had accompanied him to the school on Wednesday and was also taken captive.

"I got out because my mom threw me out the window," he said. "She's in the hospital now because some concrete blocks fell on her head. But she pushed me out of the window."

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