School hostage drama in Russia

Gunmen with explosives strapped around their waists took more than 200 people hostage at a school in south of the Russian Federation near war-torn Chechnya on Wednesday and threatened to blow up the building if the security forces moved in.

In Russia’s fourth terror attack within a week, the 20 masked and heavily armed individuals dressed in black burst into the courtyard of the school in the town of Beslan where students were lining up for their first day in school at 10am local time.

“Three people ran into the courtyard,” one boy told NTV television. “At first I thought it was a joke. Then they began to shoot and we started running.”

The hostage-takers, who reportedly included women, herded the children and adults into a gym and reportedly demanded to meet with the head of the local region of North Ossetia and neighbouring Ingushetia, Itar-Tass reported.

Seven people were killed and four injured, RIA Novosti news agency reported later on Wednesday.

A hospital in the town of Beslan has posted the lists of those killed and injured in the attack, the news agency said.

Hostage-takers threaten children

North Ossetia’s interior minister, Kazbek Dzantiev, said the hostage-takers have threatened to kill 50 children for every abductor killed, news reports said.

“For every destroyed rebel, they will kill 50 children, and 20 children for every injured rebel,” he was quoted as saying by news agencies and television.

There were conflicting reports of how many people were being held inside, with Russian television quoting law enforcement officials as saying that 200 pupils had been taken captive, along with 40 parents and teachers. Other reports placed the number of hostages at between 120 and 400.

Some reports also said the gunmen were demanding the release of rebels imprisoned in Ingushetia following a deadly raid there in June.

Television images showed armed personnel carriers and dozens of helmeted troops taking up positions around the building as crowds gathered outside the cordoned-off building. Many of the women sobbed.

The hostage-taking shattered the festive atmosphere that surrounds the first day back at school in Russia and revived painful memories of a Moscow theatre hostage-taking in 2002, during which 130 people died after police used a poison gas when they stormed the building.

Between 15 and 50 children managed to escape capture after they hid in a school boiler room and 14 pupils managed to escape from the building afterwards, the authorities said.

The hostage-takers have mined the perimeter of the school, police said.

“They have placed mines around it and a cow has already blown up on one of them,” a spokesperson said.

Putin rushes back

President Vladimir Putin rushed back to Moscow from the Black Sea to deal with the crisis, which came just hours after a car bombing outside a Moscow subway left 10 dead and scores injured.

Last week, two Russian planes were blown up, killing 90 people in an attack blamed by Russian authorities on female Chechen suicide bombers.

Top Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov denied that his forces were behind the attack through his spokesperson in London.

All entrances to North Ossetia from neighbouring republics have been closed, the republic’s prime minister told Interfax.

“We have increased security measures in all towns,” including all schools and kindergartens, he said.

Roads into North Ossetia from Georgia were also closed, a spokesperson at the regional office of the FSB (ex-KGB) security services said.

North Ossetia lies just west of the strife-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, where Moscow has been locked in a bloody conflict with separatists for the past decade.

In 1995, in the midst of the first Russo-Chechen war, about 200 Chechen rebels stormed a hospital in Stavropolsky region and held up to 1 000 people hostage. The stand-off lasted for several days and ended with Russian forces storming the hospital, leaving more than 100 people dead on all sides.—AFP

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