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Over 300 Killed in School Carnage

BESLAN, North Ossetia -- Wails of grief reverberated through the streets of this town Sunday as its residents began burying the more than 300 people slaughtered in a 52-hour hostage crisis last week.

The standoff with a group of terrorists came to a violent and unexpected end Friday when a giant explosion rocked the gymnasium at School No. 1, where many of the more than 1,000 hostages were being held. The blast triggered a chaotic 10-hour battle that killed more than 300 people, many of them children.

Conflicting accounts from hostages suggest the bomb may have been accidentally set off by a terrorist or by a bullet or grenade from outside the school. But, in any case, the explosion took everybody by surprise. Scores of hostages, many of them stripped to their underwear, began fleeing the school, and the terrorists opened fire.

Many bodies piled next to the school Saturday bore no marks of violence, but doctors said the injured and dead inside the Beslan hospital looked like "porridge."

Three powerful explosions rocked the school within 15 minutes of the first. Relatives of the hostages listened in terror near the House of Culture, where they had been waiting for news since the start of the standoff. Many were paralyzed with grief.

Hundreds of ordinary North Ossetian men broke a thin police cordon to rush toward the school. The resulting chaos in the battle zone made it nearly impossible to fight, soldiers said.

Emergency rescuers arrived at the scene after 2 p.m., more than an hour after the battle begun, indicating that federal forces had been unprepared for the explosions.

Elite Alfa counterterrorism troops and Vympel special forces arrived on armored vehicles even later, after being hastily pulled from a training operation outside the city limits, local police said.

Wild-eyed men in bloodstained clothes carried dozens of hostages through a maze of gardens adjacent to the school as bullets flew overhead. Some hostages were brought out already gray with death, others writhed in agony after limbs were torn away in the explosions.

The suffering brought upon residents, who only Wednesday had been dressed in their best to celebrate the start of the school year, was too much for many to bear. One man stood by and cried repeatedly, "Little girl, no arm. Little girl, no arm."

Some of the less-experienced military conscripts, who had been trucked in to guard the school's outer perimeter, were shaking with fear as rocket-propelled grenades exploded around them. One young soldier picked up a branch that a tracer bullet had cleaved from a tree just a few centimeters from a comrade's head. "This belongs to you," he said.

At about 3 p.m. a group of fighters yelled, "The gym is ours!"

The gym was engulfed in flames; its roof had collapsed about 30 minutes after the explosions started.

Fighting moved to the ground-floor classrooms, where the terrorists had forced a group of adult male hostages to barricade the windows with desks and school textbooks before shooting them. Only at 10:40 p.m. did officials declare the crisis over.

The cost of the carnage remained unclear Sunday. North Ossetian Health Minister Alexander Soplevenko said at least 340 people were dead, while his deputy Taimuraz Revazov said 324 were confirmed dead. North Ossetian government spokesman Lev Dzugayev put the toll stood at 338, and later revised it down to 335, Interfax reported. More than 540 people were wounded, and 386 remained hospitalized late Sunday, Dzugayev said. A total of 184 of them are children. Reports put the number of missing at anywhere from 191 to 260.

Law enforcement officials said 28 to 30 of the terrorists were dead and several were in custody. It was unclear whether any had escaped.

The crisis started at about 9 a.m. Wednesday when more than 1,000 schoolchildren, parents and teachers were attending a ceremony celebrating the first day of school. The children, as is tradition, brought for their teachers bouquets of bright flowers, which many would end up eating after the terrorists refused to allow water or food to be brought in.

The terrorists were well-armed, even though they had arrived in a single police truck, which authorities said they hijacked en route. A senior Beslan police official said munitions appeared to have been planted under the school's floorboards and into its walls during a renovation ahead of the school year. He said the renovation was carried out by a group of workers that claimed to be from Dagestan.

Hostages said the terrorists had pried up floorboards to recover weapons, in a confirmation that the attack had been planned well in advance. Soldiers said the terrorists carried night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, silencers and even gas masks -- in an apparent attempt to be prepared for the possibility that federal forces might pump gas into the school, as they did in the 2002 Dubrovka theater hostage crisis. Hostages said the terrorists almost almost immediately shattered the school's windows -- although it was not clear whether their decision was connected to fears of a gas attack or whether they were trying to ventilate the stifling building.

Hostages could not say how many terrorists there were, but said they saw at least three women carrying pistols and wearing suicide-bomb belts. Authorities said four women participated in the raid; one was detained and another was apparently on the loose.

Two of the women disappeared after the first day of the crisis, and rumors circulated among the hostages that they had blown themselves up.

The terrorists quickly placed explosives around the gym. Two large bombs connected to a pedal mechanism were put at the feet of two seated terrorists. Bombs were hung on a line stretching between two basketball hoops at each end of the gym, and mines were placed throughout the crowd, hostages said. The terrorists removed about 22 men from the group of hostages shortly after taking over the school and forced them to build barricades around the gym and in an adjoining hallway, hostages said. The men were later shot, authorities said.

The terrorists demanded the hostages turn over their cellphones and cameras and warned that if they heard a cellphone ring they would kill the 20 people closest to the phone, hostages said. They also repeatedly screamed at the hostages to be quiet and to hush crying babies and children.

The terrorists taunted the hostages and regularly fired their guns -- usually at the ceiling -- to force them into submission. Several male adults were shot in front of the hostages to show what would happen to those who did not follow orders.

Groups of three to five hostages were occasionally allowed to go to the bathroom to drink water -- but most were left thirsty.

The first explosion went off as emergency officials were trying to retrieve bodies of dead hostages that had lain in the yard near the school since Wednesday. After hours of negotiations, the terrorists had given permission for the bodies to be moved.

It is not clear what set off the first bomb. Lyudmila Shcherbinina, the school's vice principal, said a terrorist sitting next to one of the two large bombs pressed the pedal with his foot after hearing gunshots from outside, killing himself and many around him.

(The Moscow Times 30.viii.04)

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