Russian Standoff Explodes

Times Staff Writer

A three-day school hostage ordeal ended in bloodshed and pandemonium Friday when explosions tore apart the gym where more than 1,000 captives were being held, touching off an assault by Russian commandos and fierce gun battles in surrounding streets.

The official death toll was at least 250; more than 100 of the dead were children. In addition, 700 people were injured.

The explosions, apparently set off unintentionally by the hostage-takers, turned the gymnasium into a mass of twisted metal, shattered bones and charred flesh, with at least 100 bodies scattered on the floor. After the blasts, half-naked children weak with thirst, many covered in blood, ran crying from the burning building with their captors in pursuit.


“We were sitting next to the window and talking to each other. And then there were these two explosions. It deafened us, and as soon as the explosions sounded, the entire gym, the floors, the walls and the ceiling, were covered in blood,” said Zaur Aboyev, 16. “And I knew it was time to run.”

As Russian forces stormed the school complex and hunted for the hostage-takers, some of whom had fled, the sounds of battle filled this small Caucasian town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia for hours.

Russian officials said they had killed 20 hostage-takers, arrested three and believed three others were at large. A furious mob killed at least one man they believed to be a hostage-taker.

“Today has only brought death, nothing else,” said Rimma Gazzayeva, who helped drag corpses -- possibly of people caught in the crossfire -- off the streets.

The militants who seized the school Wednesday, the first day of classes, were believed to be separatists from the nearby republic of Chechnya. Guerrillas in that republic have been fighting for independence from Russia for a decade.

The violent end to the 56-hour crisis stunned a nation in which a series of major terrorist attacks believed linked to Chechen separatists have killed about 370 people in the last two weeks. In addition to the school takeover, 90 people died in near-simultaneous downings of two airliners, a suicide bomber killed nine near a Moscow subway station, and militant attacks on police and government police in Chechnya’s capital left at least 19 dead.

The events have renewed pressure on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to resolve the situation in Chechnya, where two wars in 10 years have virtually leveled the capital, left thousands dead and brought international condemnation upon Russia for extensive human rights abuses by its soldiers.

Putin made no public statement about the bloody end of the standoff Friday.

Early today, the president visited survivors in Beslan’s hospital. Television showed him standing stiffly as he patted a patient’s arm.

Putin has long contended that Arab terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have played a role in the violence in Chechnya, where a majority of people are Muslim. Russia’s Federal Security Service reported that 10 of the hostage-takers at the school were Arabs, which if substantiated would boost Putin’s assertions.

Russian authorities said Friday that they believed the siege had been masterminded by Chechnya’s most notorious warlord, Shamil Basayev, an Islamic militant whose funding channels are believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.

President Bush condemned the bloodshed. “This is yet another grim reminder of the lengths to which terrorists will go to threaten the civilized world,” he told a campaign rally in Wisconsin.

Hostages described three days of sweltering heat in the crowded gym with little food and less water. Many said they had drunk urine from their own shoes and chewed the leaves of school plants to relieve their thirst.

One boy, 10-year-old Stanislav Tsarakhov, said another boy was so thirsty he approached one of the hostage-takers who was holding an assault rifle with a bayonet attached.

“The boy went to him and asked for a little water, and instead of giving him water, he drove his bayonet through the boy’s body,” Tsarakhov said. “I don’t know if he died.”

Tsarakhov’s life may have been saved when a woman he had never met threw herself on top of him after the first big explosion, shielding him from the second. It is not known what happened to the woman.

The captives described three days of terror as the hostage-takers fired guns into the air to silence the children’s constant crying.

“They didn’t allow us to sleep. They kept us awake all the time. They would pour our own urine on our heads,” said Arsen Khasigov, 11, whose mother had accompanied him to the school on Wednesday and was also taken captive.

“I got out because my mom threw me out the window,” he said. “She’s in the hospital now because some concrete blocks fell on her head. But she pushed me out of the window.”

“The kids were crying all the time, almost all of them,” said Serafima Bekoyeva, 44, a kindergarten teacher who had been held hostage with her two sons. “Because they were hungry. And how would you react if you were held by people who were waving their guns in your face and shouting at you, ‘Shut up, you pigs!’ ... They kept demanding that the kids stop crying, but how can you keep your kids quiet in such a situation? So they would start firing their guns in the air.”

Russian authorities emphasized that they had not planned to storm the school and had been hoping to continue negotiations. But the situation spun out of control about 1 p.m., when a team arrived under an agreement with the hostage-takers to remove seven bodies that had lain in the courtyard since Wednesday.

“A blast came from inside the school just when rescuers were removing victims’ bodies. Several more blasts closely followed in the heavily mined premises,” said Valery Andreyev, head of the Federal Security Service in North Ossetia.

It is unclear what triggered the initial explosion. The leading theory is that one of the hostage-takers accidentally set off a booby trap, but some hostages suggested that an explosive fell off a basketball hoop in the gym. Others said a trip wire that had been taped to a wall was dislodged.

In any case, with many of the explosives electrically linked, the first blast set off at least one other, touching off a fire and causing the roof of the gym to collapse. About 30 hostages began leaping for the open windows to escape and their captors pursued them, shooting and battering them with their rifle butts.

The unexpected explosions and gunfire caused Russian commandos surrounding the school to open fire on the hostage-takers, and chaos ensued.

“I don’t even realize to this moment how I managed to escape,” said Bekoyeva, the kindergarten teacher. “There were deafening blasts all around us, and it was impossible to tell where they were coming from. We immediately started to push kids out the windows.”

Hostages described running through intense gunfire and hiding in outbuildings before reaching a police command post.

“It looked very much like the terrorists were firing on the kids,” said Aleksandr Zakaidza, who watched from nearby. Some of those hiding in a nearby building started calling for help. “They were saying, ‘Mama, Papa, help us, we’re here.’ ”

Tsarakhov, the 10-year-old boy, said he had been hiding behind some garages when a black Mercedes stopped.

“A man got out, just grabbed me and threw me in the car. He said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going home.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not.’ And he took me to the hospital.”

As the gunfights raged, the hostage-takers split into three groups and two of them drifted or fought their way into the surrounding, heavily congested neighborhood. Russian forces battled them among occupied apartment buildings as thousands of bystanders watched.

At Beslan’s only hospital, ambulance after ambulance roared up the driveway and nearly collided with one of dozens of hurtling passenger cars that were delivering victims.

Fathers roamed the streets nearby carrying their nearly naked and sometimes blood-speckled children. Many of the children had apparently taken off much of their clothing because of the stifling heat in the gym.

A makeshift morgue nearby was a scene of intense grieving, as burned and broken bodies -- many of them tiny -- were brought in and laid out briefly for identification. The sound of wailing engulfed the hospital grounds, as men and women alike dropped to their knees, clutched their heads and wept.

Inside the morgue, a middle-aged man with his arms covered in blood up to his elbows helped load bodies onto stretchers for transport. At one point, a jaw fell off with a click onto the tile floor. He picked it up and gazed dumbstruck at the crowd, a cigarette in his mouth and tears streaming down his face. Then he quietly placed the jaw next to the rest of the body and continued his work.

Closer to the school, Russian troops and police battled the militants for much of the afternoon, and the boom of tank fire occasionally sounded a bass note underneath the constant rhythm of small-arms volleys.

“Some of them managed to escape from the school. But the area is cordoned off, and they don’t have a chance,” said one police officer attempting to keep hundreds of curious civilians away from the fighting.

But a senior lieutenant with the Defense Ministry troops appeared less confident.

“Nobody really knows how many fighters escaped,” he said, adding that there were reports that some militants had dressed in civilian or medical personnel clothing. “God knows where these people are now. If we don’t manage to snatch them out by dark, we’re [in trouble].”

The speaker of the local parliament, Taimuraz Mamsurov, called on the public to “break into groups, take radios and mop up your living quarters -- stop every man who doesn’t live in that quarter.” Within hours, the streets were filled with civilians toting their own rifles.

A few blocks from the school, a man thought to be a fighter was killed by a mob shortly after he was arrested, witnesses said.

“You could look at his face and see he was not an ordinary person. Everything he was wearing was black, and he had a long beard,” said Vyacheslav Kudukhov, a witness. The man, he said, “kept yelling, ‘I’m a correspondent!’ But everyone knew he was lying.”

“The crowd grabbed him. The police managed to seize him for a short time, but while they were escorting him, at some point one of the local people who had a hunting rifle just shot the guy in the chest,” said Tatyana Sagutonova, 22, a student.

The most intense battle continued to focus on the school, where about three hostage-takers remained with as many as 50 hostages until Russian forces overcame what appeared to be the last of them Friday evening.

“As of 11:30 p.m., the resistance of the terrorists at the school in Beslan is completely suppressed,” operation spokesman Lev Dzugayev said.

Around Beslan, citizens who had been on vigil in the streets for three straight days returned to their homes in bitterness.

“We expected this to happen,” said Valentina Sagutonova, a retired policewoman, referring to the standoff’s end. “We just hoped it would happen as soon as possible. These people cannot be treated in any other way. We’ve been living with them all our lives, and believe me, they can only be dealt with with brute force.”