A three-day standoff with suspected Islamic Chechen terrorists armed with suicide-bomb belts at a Russian school erupted today in explosions, gunfire and the screams of fleeing children as commandos stormed the building.
The Russian Interfax news agency reported Health officials count more than 200 dead and more than 700 injured in the town of Beslan, in the North Ossetia region, near Chechnya.
President Bush called it “another grim reminder of the length to which terrorists will go to threaten this civilized world.”
In an earlier report, Britain’s ITV News said a cameraman saw up to 100 bodies.
“I was stopped by the Russian soldiers,” ITV’s Julian Manyon reported. “But our cameraman did manage to get through the door just for a few moments. He told me that in his estimation there are as many as 100 dead bodies, I am afraid, lying on the smouldering floor of the gymnasium where we know that a large number of the hostages were being held.”
The terrorists, who at one time held as many as 1,500 hostages, seized the building Wednesday and made a series of demands involving nearby Chechnya. About 26 hostages, all women and children, were freed yesterday after lengthy negotiations.
The demands included removal of Russian troops in the war-torn region and independence.
Interfax, citing the Federal Security Service, said 10 of the hostage-takers came from Arab countries.
The Russian news agency said about a dozen terrorists escaped during the raid by Russian forces and split into three groups, eventually taking refuge in a nearby home.
The Russian news agency said tank fire was heard from the area of the house while huge columns of smoke billowed from the school.
Troops engaged in “fierce fighting” with the terrorists for hours while still holding some hostages, according to Valery Andreyev, the regional Federal Security Service chief.
Officials at a crisis operation center said the siege ended shortly after nightfall. Three terrorists remained at large but it could not be confirmed whether they still held hostages.
Another three terrorists were arrested trying to escape in civilian dress, according to Russia’s Channel One TV.
Part of the school’s roof is gone and another section is charred, Interfax said.
A temporary hospital was set up near the school where children were carried in on stretchers, some covered with blood and wearing only underpants.
The chaos erupted at about 1 p.m. when the terrorists allowed Russian personnel to retreive bodies of people killed early in the raid. Explosions went off, possibly from bombs strapped to the bodies of some of the terrorists, and the hostages began to flee.
Terrorists opened fire on the hostages, many of them women and children. Commandos returned fire and moved in as the captors began to escape.
Lev Dzugayev, a North Ossetian official, said the attackers might be from Chechnya or Ingushetia.
“They are very cruel people, we are facing a ruthless enemy,” said Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician involved in the negotiations, according to Fox News. “I talked with them many times on my cell phone, but every time I ask to give food, water and medicine to the hostages they refuse my request.”
Prior to the raid, President Vladimir Putin promised everything possible would be done to end the “horrible” crisis and save the children.
The U.S.-based evangelical group Russian Ministries said its regional coordinator, Gennady Terkun, was at the scene.
He reported eight of the children of two local pastors and an estimated 50 children who recently attended a summer camp run by the ministry were among the hostages.
Anita Deyneka, director of the mission in Wheaton, Ill., told WorldNetDaily she had just received word that only two of the pastors’ eight children have been found, in a local hospital.
The raid began, she said, when older children were seen breaking a window in the school to try to escape.
“These children are very close to our hearts,” Deyneka said, noting an emergency fund has been set up for the families.