At least four hostage-takers at large as officials suggest al-Qa'ida connection

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The Independent Online

At least four of the hostage-takers responsible for the savage attack on a school in southern Russia were believed to be still at large last night.

At least four of the hostage-takers responsible for the savage attack on a school in southern Russia were believed to be still at large last night.

At least 27 of the hostage-takers were killed in gunfights with security forces. Ten of these were understood to be Arabs, said Valery Andreyev, the region's Federal Security Service chief.

An official said: "Eight rebels were destroyed on the school grounds where the hostages were being held. The rest were in nearby areas."

The hostage-takers were believed to number about 40, and President Putin's adviser on Chechnya, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, said nine of them were Arab mercenaries. Some officials also suggested an al-Qa'ida financing link to the gunmen.

One of the hostage-takers, a woman, was thought to have blown herself up using a bomb strapped to her body in the school's gym, where children were held, according to a report from a hostage who escaped.

After trading fire with militants holed up in a basement of the school, officials said the fighting was finally over but that they were still hunting for at least four of the militants.

However sporadic explosions and gunfire persisted and an official at the crisis headquarters said two militants were killed at or near the school, which was on fire, around midnight last night.

A North Ossetian interior ministry source said the gunmen had split into three groups. About five had stayed in the school, while a larger group had tried to break out of the town, and others had tried to merge with the hostages. An unknown number of hostage-takers fled but officials said three suspects were arrested while trying to escape in civilian dress through relatives waiting outside. A suspected female hostage-taker was also detained when she approached a local hospital wearing a white robe.

North Ossetia's President, Alexander Dzasokhov, said hostage-takers had demanded Russian troops leave Chechnya - the first clear indication of their demands and of a direct link between the attack on the school and the war in the neighbouring region.

The militants seized the school in North Ossetia on Wednesday, a day after a suicide bomb blast outside a Moscow subway station killed at least nine people, and just over a week after two Russian passenger jets crashed nearly simultaneously after what authorities believed were explosions on board triggered by suicide bombers.

The militants broke most of the windows early in the crisis in what might have been an effort to prevent authorities from using gas to knock them out in preparation for an assault.

The seizure by Chechens of a Moscow theatre in 2002 ended after a knockout gas was pumped into the building, debilitating the captors but causing almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.