Soldiers storm in to end hostage siege
Russian soldiers fought Chechen separatists to end a two-day school siege Friday as naked and screaming children ran for safety amid explosions and machinegun fire.
NTV television said five hostage-takers had been killed.
Soldiers carried children away from the school, some covered in blood, as gunfire and explosions continued. Military helicopters circled overhead and ambulances ferried dazed and bleeding hostages away.
"Those children who remained in the school, in general, were not hurt," said the security official quoted by Tass.
"The ones who suffered were the children in the group which ran from the school and on whom the fighters opened fire."
A Reuters correspondent saw three armored personnel carriers carry heavily armed soldiers toward the school. He also saw soldiers commandeering civilian cars, apparently to transport the wounded.
Tass said troops had blown a hole in a wall to let hostages escape. It said rebels had escaped and were fleeing the town.
Children, some half- or fully naked, gulped from bottles of water after two days without drink in a stiflingly hot and crowded school. Some lay on stretchers.
Interfax said some of the hostage-takers, believed to number about 40, had tried to break out through crowds of frantic relatives waiting near the school as special forces moved in.
It was unclear what had triggered the battle, shortly after Russia insisted it would not resort to force to free the children, parents and teachers held for 53 hours without food or water.
The clashes appeared to have begun shortly after authorities said a vehicle had been sent to the school to fetch bodies. Various reports said this had been followed by a break-out attempt by either hostages or rebels.
Alexander Dzasokhov, president of the province of North Ossetia, said the 40 or so masked gunmen were demanding an independent Chechnya, the first clear link between them and the decade-long separatist rebellion in the neighboring province.
But he tried to reassure hundreds of fraught parents who spent the night near the school in the town of Beslan, telling reporters: "I tell you frankly and honestly ... the option of force is not being considered."
Reports from some of the women and children released on Thursday painted a grim picture.
"You know, there aren't 350 people (the previous official number) in there, but 1,500 in all. People are lying one on top of another," Zalina Dzandarova, a 27-year-old woman, told the daily Kommersant.
One unidentified woman freed Thursday told Izvestia that during the night children occasionally began to cry:
"Then the fighters would fire in the air to restore quiet. In the morning they told us they would not give us anything more to drink because the authorities were not ready to negotiate.
"When children went to the toilet, some tried to drink from the tap. The fighters stopped them straight away."
Dzasokhov said the captors had made their demands in talks Thursday with Ruslan Aushev, a moderate former leader of nearby Ingushetia province, who has taken on a mediating role.
"The demands relayed to Aushev yesterday ... were that Chechnya must be an independent state," he said.
The siege is the latest in a wave of violent attacks in Russia in recent weeks, all linked to Chechen separatists.
Last week, suicide bombers were blamed for the near-simultaneous crash of two passenger planes in which 90 people died. This week, in central Moscow a suicide bomber blew herself up, killing nine people.
Russian media have speculated that the gunmen could belong to separatist forces under Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush who is believed to have led a mass assault on Ingushetia in June.
Putin, who came to power in 2000 vowing to "wipe out" Chechen militants, pledged to do all he could to save the hostages.
But he rejected any compromise on Chechnya's status. Previous ends to hostage crises have ended in huge loss of life.
Izvestia said 860 pupils attended School No.1. But the number of people on the campus would have been swollen by parents and relatives attending the first-day ceremony traditional in Russian schools.
Up to 16 people were believed to have been killed in the early stages of the assault.