BESLAN, Russia – Commandos stormed a school Friday in southern Russia and battled separatist rebels holding hundreds of hostages, as crying children, some naked and covered in blood, fled through explosions and gunfire. More than 100 bodies were reportedly found in the gymnasium where hostages had been held.
The extent of the casualties was not immediately known. The militants, who had been demanding independence for nearby Chechnya, had been keeping up to 1,500 hostages — mostly women and children — in the sweltering gymnasium for more than two days.
Regional emergency officials said at least 100 people were killed. A cameraman for the British network ITN reported seeing around 100 bodies in the gym. The correspondent for Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that there were dozens of bodies in the school, including about 100 in the gym, and that some were killed when the building’s roof collapsed from an explosion before the main assault began.
Other casualties were reported when militants opened fire on hostages as they fled the building and in fighting that went on for several hours afterward. Russian forces killed 10 of the hostage-takers, Interfax reported. The regional health minister reported that 409 people were wounded, including at least 218 children.
Russian authorities took control of the school in the assault, which did not appear to have been planned beforehand but may have been prompted when the hostage-takers began shooting and setting off explosives.
About a dozen hostage-takers escaped, with the Interfax new agency reporting that they split into three groups to blend in with the hostages and took refuge in a home nearby. Tank fire was heard from the area of the house, Interfax said, and gunfire rang out through the town for hours.
The White House branded the hostage-taking “barbaric” and “despicable” and said responsibility for dozens of lost lives rests with the terrorists. “The United States stands side-by-side with Russia in our global fight against terrorism,” spokesman Scott McClellan said.
President Bush was briefed on developments in Russia Friday morning before a re-election rally in Pennsylvania. He did not talk about the Russian terrorism during his speech.
Huge columns of smoke billowed from the school, where windows were shattered, part of roof gone and another part charred. Commandos, residents and journalists scurried around the building and soldiers climbed inside through a lower floor window, all the glass missing.
People ran through the streets, the wounded carried off on stretchers. An Associated Press reporter saw ambulances speeding by, the windows streaked with blood. Four armed men in civilian clothes ran by, shouting, “A militant ran this way.”
Soldiers and men in civilian clothes carried children — some naked, some clad only in underpants, some covered in blood — to a temporary hospital set up behind an armored personnel carrier. One child had a bandage on her head, others had bandaged limbs. Some women, newly freed from the school, fainted.
The children drank eagerly from bottles of water given to them once they reached safety. Many of the children were only partly clothed because of the stifling heat in the gymnasium where they had been held since the militants took the building on Wednesday morning. The hostage-takers had refused to let food or water into the school throughout the standoff.
“I am helping you,” a man dressed in camouflage told a crying girl. Women gathered around, trying to soothe her, saying “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
Associated Press Television News footage showed the bodies of four children and a woman, and the ITAR-Tass news agency reported at least seven people killed, including five militants.
A nurse spread clean sheets on stretchers, and told AP that Russian officials expected “very many” wounded.
The chaos erupted on the third day of the hostage standoff in Beslan, a town of 30,000 in North Ossetia, a republic near the wartorn region of Chechnya. North Ossetia’s president, Alexander Dzasokhov, said the militants had demanded independence for the nearby wartorn region of Chechnya.
It began after militants had agreed to let Russia retrieve the bodies of people killed early in the raid. Explosions went off as the emergency personnel went to get the bodies at around 1 p.m., collapsing part of the roof of the building, and hostages took the noise as a signal to flee, officials said.
Militants opened fire on fleeing hostages and security forces returned fire. Once the hostage-takers sought to escape, Russian officials apparently made the decision to storm the building.
The militants had reportedly threatened to blow up the building if authorities tried to storm it, but all indications suggested the explosions began before the assault. Russian officials repeatedly said they were not planning to invade and had earlier won the release of 26 hostages through negotiations.
The hostage takers’ identities were murky. Lev Dzugayev, a North Ossetian official, said the attackers might be from Chechnya or Ingushetia. Law enforcement sources in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers were believed to include Chechens, Ingush, Russians and a North Ossetian suspected of participating in the Ingushetia violence.
Insurgents fought an earlier war for Chechen independence, a conflict that ended in stalemate. In the years since, the rebels and their sympathizers have increasingly taken to assaults and attacks outside the tiny republic.
Negotiators said the hostage-takers had repeatedly refused offers of food and water througout the standoff.
“They are very cruel people, we are facing a ruthless enemy,” said Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician involved in the negotiations. “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.”
The school seizure came a day after a suspected Chechen suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine people, and just over a week after 90 people died in two plane crashes that are suspected to have been blown up by bombers also linked to Chechnya.
In a 2002 theater raid in Moscow, Chechen rebels took about 800 hostages during a performance, a standoff that ended after a knockout gas was pumped into the building, debilitating the captors but causing almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.
There were conflicting reports of the number of hostages being held at the school. Officials had initially said about 350 — but some freed hostages among a small group freed Thursday put the number at about 1,500.
Women escaping the building were seen fainting and others, some covered in blood, were carried away on stretchers. After the escape, commandos assaulted the building.
On Thursday, the militants had freed about 26 hostages, all women and children.
President Vladimir Putin had said that everything possible would be done to end the “horrible” crisis and save the lives of the children.