Anxious relatives search for news on school hostages

More than 340 killed in Russian crisis, including all 26 hostage-takers

September 05, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BESLAN, Russia - As desperate relatives scrambled to learn the fate of their loved ones, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin called on his nation yesterday to mobilize against "international terror" after a hostage crisis at a school ended in the deaths of more than 340 people, nearly half of them children.

"We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten," Putin said in a rare nationally televised address after a brief visit to the scene in southern Russia.

The attack "was a terrorist act that was inhuman and unprecedented in its cruelty," Putin said. "It is a challenge not to the president, the parliament and the government but a challenge to all of Russia, to all of our people. It is an attack on our nation.

"We are dealing not with separate acts of intimidation, not with individual forays of terrorists," Putin said. "We are dealing with the direct intervention of international terror against Russia, with total and full-scale war."

Russian officials have been widely criticized for their handling of the 10-year-old rebellion by Chechen militants, and families of missing hostages complained yesterday that authorities were making matters worse by not disseminating timely information about survivors and casualties.

All day, scores of relatives drove from hospital to hospital, checking handwritten patient lists taped to outside walls and begging doctors for any shred of information.

The frantic search eventually brought many families to the city morgue in nearby Vladikavkaz, where refrigerator trucks lined up carrying remains, while rows of body bags lay on the pavement outside.

Arola Khodova, 26, donned a surgical mask and walked inside in hopes of finding her grandmother, Zinaida Tretyikova, who was a hostage along with Arola's sister and nephew. The sister and nephew survived, but Tretyikova remained missing late yesterday afternoon.

Khodova emerged without the closure she wanted to give her family. The remains of an older woman bore a necklace similar to one Tretyikova once wore, but Khodova could not identify the body because it was so badly burned.

"So now we'll go through the hospitals again," Khodova said resignedly. "There's still hope."

Hundreds of other families clung to similar hope, even as authorities announced that the death toll had topped 340, including 156 children. Medical officials said 448 people remained in hospitals, including 248 children.

But many still lacked any information about their relatives. They gathered at Beslan's House of Culture, the town's community center, and held up photos of children, parents, grandparents and teachers whose fate remained unknown.

"It's noon now, and no one from the government has appeared. We are being treated like dogs," shouted Assa Tetyova, who said her 10-year-old grandson, Timur Tetyov, was a hostage and still missing. "No information about survivors, no information about the missing, no information at all. We come to the hospitals, and they say the lists aren't ready yet."

Putin appeared earlier in the day at Beslan Hospital to visit with the injured and meet with school administrators. Later, he met with regional officials, saying that while the province of North Ossetia has suffered terrorist attacks before, "even the cruel attacks of the past pale beside this act of terrorism because this time, children were the target."

The hostage crisis at School No. 1 began Wednesday, when 26 heavily armed militants seized the school on the first day of classes. They demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Chechnya and release militants captured in June by Russian forces during a guerrilla raid on Ingushetia, a small province just west of Chechnya.

Russian investigators said yesterday that the militants included Chechen and Ingush fighters, as well as 10 Arabs. All of them were killed during the siege and its violent climax.

Negotiators had persuaded the militants to release 26 hostages, including 15 children, Thursday. But by Friday morning, the hostage-takers had broken off talks.

Russian troops stormed the school shortly after 1 p.m. local time Friday. Authorities said that as civil defense workers approached the school's courtyard to take away bodies of people killed on the first day of the standoff, the militants set off a large explosion.

After the blast, children began running from the gymnasium where they were being held. Russian authorities said that when the hostage-takers began firing at the fleeing children, Russian troops began the raid.

"After the explosion, the terrorists just began firing at everyone," said Arsen Kambulov, whose mother, brother and niece survived. Many others died when the gym roof collapsed.

Russian troops directed volleys at terrorists so that hostages would have enough cover to flee. When Ossetian volunteers and Russian troops made their way into the gym, they found the floor covered with charred bodies.

Some were still alive and hiding among the bodies. When Kambulov's mother, Olga Gatsiva, heard Russian soldiers call out, she slowly stood up. A soldier led her to safety.

Fighting between Russian troops and the hostage-takers continued for several hours. By nightfall Friday, Russian forces had taken control of the school.

Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said yesterday that all 26 hostage-takers had been killed. But Putin closed North Ossetia's borders out of concern that others involved in the planning of the attack could still be at large.

Sources with Russia's Federal Security Service told the Interfax news agency that the service was investigating whether the hostage-takers had stashed explosives and arms under school floors while the school was being refurbished this summer.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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