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Funerals planned for 340 dead in Russia school siege
Updated: 2004-09-05 08:56

Mourners prepared on Sunday for the first funerals of 340 people killed in the bloody battle that ended the siege of a southern Russian school on Friday -- but others did not know if loved ones had survived.

Rows of body bags containing bodies of dead hostages lie for identification at a morgue in the town of Vladikavkaz, September 4, 2004. [Reuters]
Hundreds of wounded were still being treated in hospitals in Beslan and nearby towns, and distraught relatives -- caught between hope and despair -- scanned hand-written lists of living patients or toured morgues trying to identify the dead.

"My son is missing," Albert Adykhayev told NTV television. "He is too young to say who he is. I just don't know on what lists and under what name he will appear." His son is three.

Hospital doctors tried to help on Saturday by displaying photographs of unidentified patients, children too small or too shocked to give their names.

Many townspeople, still stunned by the ferocity of the battle between security forces and the Chechen militants who stormed the school on Wednesday and took more than 1,000 hostages, have spent two days searching for friends or family.

Hundreds queued on Saturday outside the morgue in the nearby city of Vladikavkaz to identify relatives among the rows of dead laid out on stretchers, holding handkerchiefs to their faces to keep out the stench.

Family members wait for their turn to come in to identify their relatives among the dead hostages at a morgue in the town of Vladikavkaz, September 4, 2004. [Reuters]
Others scanned the lists of injured pasted on town walls, and some resorted to making their own lists of the casualties of the bloody end to the siege.

Of the 340 known to have died, 155 were children, the others their parents and teachers, all trapped in the school where they had gathered for festivities marking the first day of term.

Most were killed on Saturday, when special forces assaulted the school after hearing huge explosions in the gym and seeing hostage takers shooting fleeing children.

Up to 20 people were believed to have been killed when the gunmen seized the building last Wednesday and herded their captives into the gym. Officials said security forces killed all the estimated 26 hostage takers.


President Vladimir Putin, who flew into Beslan for a few hours early on Saturday, later told Russians the security forces needed to rethink their approach to tackling such emergencies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin comforts Lidia Tsiliyeva, the director of the besieged school, at the hospital in Beslan, September 4, 2004. [Reuters]
"We must create a much more effective system of security. We must demand that our security forces act at a level appropriate to the level and scope of the new threats," he said in a televised address more than 24 hours after the end of the siege.

He declared Monday and Tuesday days of national mourning.

A total of 423 people were being treated in hospitals in the North Ossetia region where Beslan lies, including 237 children, while more serious cases had been sent to other parts of southern Russia or Moscow.

Soslan Bidoyev, 23, was relieved to find his brother in a Vladikavkaz hospital, but shocked by his account of events at the school on Wednesday.

"He told us that when the hostages were brought in, the gunmen made the adults pry open the gymnasium floor. They took out supplies of weapons from underneath the floor," he said.

"He told me the first explosion was right there."

Such accounts strengthened the view that the gunmen were well prepared and had local help, and fueled the anger of residents who accused Putin of making only a token visit to the town and failing in his duty to protect them.

"He saw no one and talked to no one," said Boris, whose neighbor and her family were missing. "He just wanted to show the world how young and handsome he is, but he hasn't helped and he won't help and he can't stop this happening again."

In his address, Putin said Russia had failed to adapt to new defense and security needs and must now put this right.

"We failed to react appropriately to them and, instead, displayed weakness," he said. "And the weak are always beaten."

The Kremlin leader, speaking after a week of calamities linked to Chechen separatists, pledged to restore control over the North Caucasus, the part of southern Russia which includes the turbulent region of Chechnya.

But Putin, who rejects any notion of talks with separatists, made no direct reference to Chechnya in his 10-minute address.

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