September 4th 2004 · Prague Watchdog / Ruslan Isayev & Timur Aliyev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Over 300 people die during North Ossetian school battle

Ruslan Isayev & Timur Aliyev, North Caucasus - Over 300 people were killed during Friday's battle at the school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where Wednesday morning a group of terrorists took about a thousand children and adults hostage.

The number of casualties may rise as rescue work continues and new bodies are found under the debris of the collapsed roof of the school building. By noon over 170 corpses, of which 90 were children, had been removed from the rubble. The rescue work is expected to be completed by nightfall.

Arslan, a worker from the North Ossetian Emergencies Ministry, who took part in the rescue work, said that he had never seen bloody pulps such as this. Many bodies had been torn to pieces and the scenes resembled something from a horror movie. Many workers were visibly affected by the carnage and refused to take part in the work, he added.

About 700 people, half of them children, have been treated at hospitals in North Ossetia.

The crisis staff team explained the high number of dead and wounded by the fact that no one was prepared for an assault on the building. Yet in spite of this allegation, there are some details that have been observed not only by journalists, but also by many relatives of the hostages:

On Friday morning, scores of relatives and members of the press were driven back from the main entrance of the Palace of Culture, and the cordoned-off zone was extended. No reasons were given, so many people wondered at the move. Suspicion heightened that an assault on the building was being prepared when three tanks arrived in Beslan.

On the morning of September 3, North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov announced that an assault on the building would only be considered as a last resort, when all other options had been exhausted. At the same time, there was a report that the terrorists had agreed to release the bodies of those who died when the hostages were seized. This aroused hope that they would permit the hostages to receive food and water.

Literally two hours after this announcement there was an explosion, then a burst of automatic gun fire, and shooting from a large-calibre machine gun, which developed into a full-fledged battle.

Several minutes later the first hostages came out. First was a woman, who was probably shown on all the television channels. She was bloodied with clots of blood on her head and clearly in shock as she only mumbled something and smiled.

Then came more wounded, some of whom were carried out on stretchers and children simply carried in people's arms. Ambulances could not get through so the injured were taken to the hospital in automobiles. Any cars standing on the road were dragged aside to make way.

As the shooting continued, more dead and wounded were carried out and driven away. Helicopters appeared in the sky.

The position of the firing changed. Shooting continued in one wing of the school where the hostage-takers were holed up. A few managed to escape and run towards the railway station in the south of town where they took up positions in a private house. But judging by the occasional firing, there were no more than two or three men.

Shooting from high-calibre weapons could be heard from that direction, possibly from tanks blocking the approach to the station.

According to a report from the crisis staff, some of the terrorists changed into civilian clothes and mingled in among the hostages. Officials called on the residents of Beslan to display vigilance and report anyone unfamiliar to them.

One terrorist was soon caught. He tried hiding under a car but was seen and identified by his fingerless gloves. His captors severely beat him and broke his legs before a policeman arrived on the scene and removed him from the hands of the would-be lynchers.

It is still unclear who actually started the shooting, although Russian army officials blame the terrorists. Employees of the crisis staff in charge of anti-terrorist operations said that when rescuers came close to the school building, a group of children tried to escape through the gymnasium windows and the terrorists began shooting. Only then, according to the officials, did the attack start.

But all this seems somewhat dubious, considering that the special Vimpel and Alfa commandos that took part in the attack are normally deployed for the purpose of assaults. And during the attack they also suffered casualties; 18 of them were hospitalized.

Early on Saturday morning Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly arrived in Beslan. Only a handful of people knew about the trip so that his arrival was a big surprise to the North Ossetian authorities. He visited the district hospital in Beslan and then held a brief meeting with the local authorities and members of the Interior Ministry and the military.

During the meeting President Putin declared that earlier, while in Moscow, he had given orders to close the North Ossetian borders inside the Russian Federation and also the North Ossetian part of the border between Russia and Georgia.

“It is necessary that targetted operations be conducted that will reveal everyone who aided and abetted the terrorists since it was these people who tried to provoke a political explosion in Northern Caucasus. And anyone who will be part of this provocation must be considered as assisting the terrorists,” he stated.




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