News and Information

High death toll in Russia siege
September 3, 2004
At least 150 people are reported to have died in a school in southern Russia where Chechen separatists had been holding hundreds of hostages.
Dozens of corpses were seen outside a local morgue, and the number of dead is expected to rise further.

Heavy gunfire and loud explosions were heard throughout the morning as Russian troops stormed the school, in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.

Russian troops are fighting to free children still held hostage.

There is confusion over what sparked the operation, which was unplanned.

Correspondents say the day's events have taken Moscow by surprise.

The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley in Moscow says there has been a wall of silence from President Vladimir Putin and his government.

Meanwhile, the US White House condemned the hostage-taking as "barbaric" and blamed the hostage-takers for the lives lost during the storming of the school.

Battle continues

Hundreds of children were freed in the seizure, though some are badly injured.

However Aslanbek Aslakhanov, an aide to Mr Putin who has just arrived in the region , said the death toll would be higher than 150. Sixty of the dead have so far been identified.

More than 400 people were injured.

Click here to see the layout of the school

Mr Aslakhanov said 20 hostage-takers had died in exchanges of fire with troops, at least nine of them Arabs.

But several hours after the assault, a group of rebels was still firing from a building in the school compound, Itar-Tass said.

1530: Putin aide says death toll may top 150
1514: Officials say some children still held hostage
1430: Gunmen still firing from school - reports
1407: 10 hostage-takers killed in shoot-outs - Interfax
1330: Security services say their assault on school was not planned
1322: More than 400 people injured, officials say
1125: Security forces attack house where some rebels thought to be hiding - reports
0958: Special forces enter school
0930: School roof said to have collapsed
0905: Explosions and gunfire heard. Soldiers run to building

At a glance: School siege

Other reports said three militants, possibly including the group's leader, was hiding in the school's basement.

According to police, the hostage-takers had split into three groups during the storming, with some staying in the school, others fleeing to the south and the remainder trying to blend in with the hostages.

Russian security officials said they had still been intending to negotiate with them.

"I want to point out that no military action was planned," said regional Federal Security Service chief Valery Andreyev. "We were planning further talks."

Security forces had opened fire to save the lives of hostages who were being fired on by gunmen, he said.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford says a man who had been inside the building told her there had been an explosion and a wall had collapsed. This had been followed by gunfire and many more explosions.

It is unclear what caused the initial explosion.

White sheets

Correspondents say many of those released were desperate for water when they came out, and some were barely able to stand.

Relatives were running around screaming and crying

Eyewitness: Chaos as battle grips school
There were scenes of pandemonium, as children ran terrified and half-naked through the streets grabbing water bottles from medics.

One boy described his escape.

"I smashed the window to get out," he told Russian TV. "People were running in all directions... [The rebels] shot from the roof."

Ambulances ferried hundreds of people to hospital. Our correspondent says at least 150 children were among them.

Helicopters hovered overhead and there were troops everywhere.

Reuters said six bodies lay covered with white sheets near the school gates, and parents filed past lifting the sheets to see whether their children were underneath.

Officials put the number of hostages at 354 before Thursday's release, although the school has more than 1,000 pupils.

The attackers - both men and women, some wearing bomb belts - struck on Wednesday, the first day of the new school year in Russia.


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