'200 children held hostage' in Russia

Attackers wearing suicide-bomb belts seized a school in a Russian region bordering Chechnya today and were holding hundreds of hostages, reportedly including 200 children. The assault came a day after a suicide bomber killed 10 people in Moscow.

The hostage-takers reportedly released 15 children several hours later, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. But Ruslan Ayamov, spokesman for North Ossetia's Interior Ministry, denied that the hostage-takers had freed anyone, telling The Associated Press that 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building's boiler room.

During the seizure, at least two people were killed, including a father who had brought his child to the school and was shot when he tried to resist the raiders, said Fatima Khabolova, a spokeswoman for the regional parliament. A raider also was killed and nine people were injured, she said.

The seizure began after a ceremony marking the first day of the Russian school year, reports said, when it was likely that many parents had accompanied their children to the school which covers grades 1-11. The attackers warned they would blow up the school if police tried to storm it and forced children to stand at the windows, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesman for southern Russia.

Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the 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.

Parents of the seized children recorded a videocassette appeal to President Vladimir Putin to fulfill the terrorists' demands, Khabalova said. The text of the appeal was not immediately available.

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 two strikes came just a week after two Russian planes carrying 90 people crashed almost simultaneously in what officials also say were terrorist bombings.

"In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said.

The latest violence also appears to be timed around last Sunday's presidential elections in Chechnya, a Kremlin-backed move aimed at undermining support for the insurgents by establishing a modicum of civil order in the war-shattered republic. The previous Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed along with more than 20 others in a bombing on May 9.

Gunfire broke out after the school raid and at least three teachers and two police officers were wounded, Polyansky said. More gunfire and several explosions were heard about three hours later, the Interfax news agency reported.

Polyansky said most of the attackers were wearing suicide bomb belts.

The attackers demanded talks with regional officials and a well-known pediatrician, Leonid Roshal, who had aided hostages during the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, news reports said. At least 129 hostages died in that incident, most from effects of a knockout gas pumped into the building, and 41 attackers were reported killed.

The hostage-takers at the school demanded the release of fighters detained over a series of attacks on police facilities in neighboring Ingushetia in June, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing regional officials. Those well-coordinated raids killed more than 90 people.

ITAR-Tass, citing regional emergency officials, said about 400 people including some 200 children were being held captive. A regional police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, 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.

In television footage from outside the school in Beslan, a town about 10 miles north of the regional capital of Vladikavkaz, men in camouflage with heavy-caliber machine guns took up positions on the perimeter and other men in civilian dress with light automatic rifles paced nervously.

At one point, a girl of about age 7 in a floral print dress and a red bow in her hair streaked around a corner apparently after fleeing from the school, her hand held by a flak-jacketed soldier, followed by an older woman. Russian news reports said about 50 students managed to escape, some after hiding in the school's boiler room during the raid.

"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 teenage witness, Zarubek Tsumartov, said on Russian television.

The attack was the latest in a string of violence that has tormented Russians and plagued the government of President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000 vowing to crush the Chechen rebels but has been largely unable to do so.

Terrorism fears in Russia had risen markedly following the plane crashes and the suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station on Tuesday night that killed 10 people and wounded more than 50.

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 veracity of the statements could not immediately be confirmed.

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.

Putin interrupted his working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday and returned to Moscow, after doing the same last week because of the plane crashes. Upon arrival at the Moscow airport, Putin held an immediate meeting with the heads of Russia's Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, the Interfax news agency said.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told reporters near the Rizhskaya subway stop in northern Moscow that the female bomber was walking toward the station but saw two police officers stationed there, turned around "and decided to destroy herself in a crowd of people."

The blast tore through a heavily trafficked area between the subway station and a nearby department store. Doctors worked through the night to save the lives of others who were severely wounded by the bomb that officials said was packed with bolts to maximize casualties.

Several female suicide bombers allegedly connected with the rebels have caused carnage in Moscow and other Russian cities in a series of attacks in recent years.

Many of the women bombers are believed to be so-called "black widows," who have lost husbands or male relatives in the fighting that has gripped Chechnya for most of the past decade. Investigators of the plane crashes are seeking information about two Chechen women believed to have been aboard - one on each plane.

Police spokesman Valery Gribakin said hours after the blast that police patrols were being increased and document checks stepped up, and that security at subway and train stations and airports was being boosted. However, no increase of uniformed officers was immediately apparent at subway stations during the morning rush on Wednesday.

Fears that the Chechen rebels aimed to export their fight outside the small republic's borders rose in June after insurgents launched a coordinated series of attacks on police facilities in neighboring Ingushetia, in which more than 90 people were killed.

In a videotape released several days after the attack, a man appearing to be warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the assaults and said his fighters had seized huge quantities of arms from police arsenals.

In 1995, Chechen rebels led by Basayev seized a hospital in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, taking some 2,000 people hostage. The six-day standoff ended with a fierce Russian police assault. Some 100 people died in the incident.

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