Hostages at Russian school

Militants seize building

children, teachers held

Chechen rebels suspected

September 02, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A band of heavily armed guerrillas, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, seized scores of students, teachers and parents at a school in southern Russia yesterday and threatened to blow up the building if police tried to storm it.

Seventeen masked hostage-takers, including two women, shot their way into Middle School No. 1 in the city of Beslan, in North Ossetia, not far from Chechnya, in the early morning of the first day of classes.

Authorities said they weren't sure what the guerrillas wanted. But in telephone conversations with reporters, the guerrillas demanded that Russian troops leave Chechnya, and that authorities release suspects arrested during a raid in June in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia.

The school assault came right after the traditional opening day ceremonies, including the presentation of flowers to teachers, speeches and a procession in which the oldest boy carries the youngest pupil around on his shoulders.

The gunmen fired rifles into the ceiling and traded shots with security guards and police while storming the five-story school building on a leafy downtown block and herded their hostages into the gymnasium. Estimates of the number of hostages varied from about 120 to 400. The school, which has 900 students and 59 teachers, includes students in the first through the 11th grades, which in Russia is the final year of high school.

At least two people were killed when the gunmen took over the school, police said, including one student's father - who was shot when he challenged his captors - as well as a school guard. Nine other people were reported injured.

About 50 children escaped. Some ran from the schoolyard during the takeover while others hid in the boiler room and later slipped away, according to television reports. Television pictures showed one young girl in the arms of a policeman, sprinting to safety.

The gunmen threatened to kill 20 hostages for each of their number injured, and 50 for every fighter slain, the Itar-Tass news service reported.

Parents of the captured schoolchildren wept on the city's street corners, and some appealed to the gunmen on the television news. "My poor child, let him go," begged a woman in a flower-print dress. "Take me instead."

Sergei Gadzhinov, who had an 8-year-old son among the hostages, stood outside the security cordon with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. "The government is not keeping us properly informed," he said angrily. "I don't believe their information or their promises. I'm going to ask the rebels to swap me for my child."

Mugzar Baroyev, who had a 7-year-old nephew inside, said, "The only thing we can do is agree to their demands. There should be no storming of the building, no matter what."

Yesterday's was the latest in a recent series of attacks in Russia. On Tuesday, 11 people died after an apparent suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station. A week earlier, 90 people died when two passenger planes were blown up at almost the same moment.

President Vladimir V. Putin and other Kremlin officials say the attacks are the work of militants linked to al-Qaida. "In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei B. Ivanov, said reporters yesterday.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few liberal members of the Russian parliament, said that the past week's violence was indeed part of "an unprecedented large-scale terrorist operation," but that authorities have "proven to be shamelessly incompetent and unable to prevent or withstand these attacks."

Putin said Russia would not negotiate with militants or Chechen rebels. "We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons and destroy them," Putin said, according to the Interfax news agency.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the school seizure yesterday. Chechen separatists and militant Muslims in the Caucasus have waged a five-year guerrilla war with Moscow that has increasingly been marked by assaults on civilian targets.

But Akhmed Zakayev, a spokesman for the Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, denied on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio that Chechnya's rebel government-in-hiding was involved.

North Ossetian authorities said they weren't certain who was responsible, though the aim of the raid seemed clear.

"This is an attempt to destabilize the situation in South Russia, where life is slowly getting back to normal," Lev Zugayev, spokesman for the president of North Ossetia, said in a telephone interview from Beslan. "Whatever goals the terrorists pursue, their actions by no means can be justified."

A man who answered the phone in the school identified himself to The New York Times as the "press secretary" of the guerrillas and spoke Russian with a Chechen accent. The man said the guerrillas were part of a group believed to be commanded by the warlord Shamil Basayev, a Chechen commander and veteran hostage-taker.

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