Militants strapped with explosives seize Russian school, taking 400 hostage
Associated Press Writer
BELSAN, Russia (AP) – More than a dozen militants wearing suicide-bomb belts seized a southern Russian school in a region bordering Chechnya on Wednesday, taking hostage about 400 people – half of them children – and threatening to blow up the building if police storm it. As many as eight people have been reported killed, one of them a school parent.
Hours into the desperate standoff, security officials said they had made brief contact with the hostage-takers. Russian special forces wearing camouflage and carrying heavy-caliber machine guns surrounded Middle School No. 1. About 1,000 people, mostly parents, were massed the three-story building in the town of Belsen, demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.
Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the North Ossetia region’s Interior Ministry, said that the hostages have threatened “for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter – 20 (children),” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
At one point, a girl wearing a floral print dress and a red bow in her hair fled the school, her hand held by a flak-jacketed soldier. An older woman followed them. Ruslan Ayamov, spokesman for North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry told The Associated Press that 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building’s boiler room.
The attack was the latest blamed on secessionist Chechen rebels, coming a day after a suicide bomber killed nine people in Moscow and a week after near-simultaneous explosions blamed on terrorists caused two Russian planes to crash, killing all 90 people on board. The surge in violence was apparently timed around last Sunday’s Chechen presidential election.
“In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said.
President Vladimir Putin interrupted his working holiday Wednesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a second time and returned to the capital. On arrival at the airport, he held an immediate meeting with the heads of Russia’s Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, the Interfax news agency said.
The standoff began after a ceremony marking the first day of the Russian school year, when it was likely that many parents had accompanied their children. About 17 militants, men and women, stormed the three-story building and herded captives into the gymnasium. They forced children to stand at the windows and warned they would blow up the school if police intervened, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesman for southern Russia.
“I was standing near the gates, music was playing, when I saw three armed people running with guns. At first I though it was a joke when they fired in the air and we fled,” a teenager, Zarubek Tsumartov, said on Russian television.
Hours after the seizure, Regional Federal Security Service chief Valery Andreyev said on NTV television that negotiations with the hostage-takers “are just, just beginning” and that brief contact had not allowed authorities to evaluate the situation in Belsen, located 10 miles north of the regional capital of Vladikavkaz
The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing local hospitals, reported that seven people died of injuries in the hospital and one was killed at the site during the seizure.
But Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev told The Associated Press that two civilians were killed and nine hospitalized, and that two bodies were visible near the school. Interfax cited a health official as saying four people were killed, but the emergencies ministry later said the toll was two.
Dzgoyev said a girl was also lying near the building, presumably wounded, but officials said the area could not be approached because it was coming under fire.
Fatima Khabalova, spokeswoman for the regional parliament, earlier said one of the dead was a father who brought his child to the school and was shot when he tried to resist the raiders. She also said at least nine people had been injured in gunfire, including three teachers and two police officers.
Suspicion in both the school attack and the Moscow bombing fell on Chechen rebels or their sympathizers, but there was no evidence of any direct link. The attacks came around Chechnya’s presidential elections, a Kremlin-backed vote aimed at undermining support for the insurgents by establishing a modicum of civil order in the war-shattered republic. The previous president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed with more than 20 others in a bombing May 9.
The militants inside the school released one hostage with a list of their demands, including the freedom of fighters detained over a series of attacks on police facilities in neighboring Ingushetia in June, ITAR-Tass reported.
They also seek talks with regional officials and a well-known pediatrician, Leonid Roshal, who aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, news reports said.
Parents of the seized children recorded a videocassette appeal Putin to fulfill the terrorists’ demands, Khabalova said. The text of the appeal was not immediately available.
The violence was the latest to plague the government of Putin, who came to power vowing to crush the Chechen rebellion. Terrorism fears in Russia have risen markedly following the plane crashes and the suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station Tuesday night. The blast by a female attacker tore through a busy area between the station and a department store, killing nine people and wounded more than 50.
Authorities said Tuesday that 10 people were killed, but Interfax reported Wednesday that Moscow health officials revised that, saying one man who died in a hospital was not a victim of the blast.
A militant Muslim web site published a statement claiming responsibility for the bombing on behalf of the “Islambouli Brigades,” a group that also claimed responsibility for the airliner crashes. The statements could not immediately be verified.
The statement said Tuesday’s bombing was a blow against Putin, “who slaughtered Muslims time and again.” Putin has refused to negotiate with rebels in predominantly Muslim Chechnya who have fought Russian forces for most of the past decade, saying they must be wiped out.
Regional emergency officials said about 400 people including some 200 children were being held captive in the Belsen school, ITAR-Tass reported. A regional police official said the hostages had been herded into the school gymnasium. There were 17 attackers, both male and female, Interfax said, citing Ismel Shaov, a regional spokesman for the Federal Security Service.