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Russia counts cost of bloody end to school siege
Updated: 2004-09-04 09:02

Russia began counting the cost on Saturday at the end of siege of a school captured by Chechen gunmen which killed at least 200 people and cast fresh doubts on Moscow's policy in the turbulent region.

The storming of the school by Russian forces plunged the small town of Beslan into pandemonium. Troops and armed civilians advanced on the red brick building after explosions inside, as pupils, parents and teachers, many drenched in blood, were carried out on stretchers or in the arms of burly local men.

The carnage was the latest of a series of calamities linked with Chechen separatists to strike Russia in the past week.

Figures issued by authorities in North Ossetia, west of Chechnya, said more than 200 people had been killed, while 531 remained in hospital, 92 in serious condition. Officials said 27 hostage-takers had been killed and three taken alive.

But after a day of drama broadcast on television, President Vladimir Putin had still to make a public address. Key ministers were also silent, leaving local officials to issue statements.

Putin appeared on television on Thursday telling the visiting king of Jordan the hostages' safety was paramount.

Western governments offered sympathy to Putin at the end of the school siege. But the European Union, in a statement issued once the scale of death became apparent, also wanted an explanation from Russia "how this tragedy could have happened."

Freed hostages described the mayhem which followed the Friday afternoon explosions -- 53 hours after the separatist gunmen first threatened to blow up the building.

"Bombs were strung all over the gym," one teenage girl told state television. "Tape came unstuck on one and it blew up."

"There were two big explosions," a women in her forties said. "We started pushing all the children out of the windows ... Everyone who was there started pushing them out."

Authorities said they had been forced to launch a rescue operation when the gunmen opened fire on fleeing children.

Gunmen offer resistance

Gunfire and explosions resounded into the night as authorities said the rebels, who refused offers to provide food and drink for the hostages, offered lengthy resistance.

It was still unclear how many people had been in the school when it was stormed during ceremonies opening the academic year.

Medical teams were stretched. The first of two planes carrying doctors and medicines arrived early on Saturday.

Vitaly Slepushkin, head of emergency medicine at the North Ossetian Medical Academy, said his hospital treated some 450 people. Most suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and burns.

"It was very difficult for the first 10 to 15 minutes when 100 people were brought in by private cars," he said.

Terrified children ran screaming for safety from the building, many wearing only underwear after two days of being crammed into the school gym in stifling heat.

Putin, easily re-elected to a second term in March, must now reassure Russians they are safe from the threat of separatists on city streets and on public transport and aircraft.

The near-simultaneous crash of two airplanes last week, in which 90 people died, was blamed on Chechen suicide bombers as was an explosion by a Moscow metro station which killed nine.

Putin has made a tough line against the rebels a key plank of his presidency and refuses all talks with separatists, even more moderate activists who denounced the hostage-taking.

He has tried to ensure Chechnya is run by loyal officials, like local president Alu Alkhanov, whose election last week was dismissed by separatists and criticized in the West as unfair.

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