Chechen rebels seize schoolchildren, spreading terror on 'Knowledge Day'

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The Independent Online

It was shortly after eight o'clock yesterday morning when the non-descript green army truck drew up outside school number one in Beslan, North Ossetia, a far-flung republic in southern Russia. The scores of proud parents accompanying their children to school didn't bat an eyelid; Russia's heavily militarised north Caucasus region is awash with military hardware and personnel.

It was shortly after eight o'clock yesterday morning when the non-descript green army truck drew up outside school number one in Beslan, North Ossetia, a far-flung republic in southern Russia. The scores of proud parents accompanying their children to school didn't bat an eyelid; Russia's heavily militarised north Caucasus region is awash with military hardware and personnel.

Besides which, yesterday was a special day, the first of the new academic year and the bright Caucasian sun was already beating down.

Known as "knowledge day" in Russia, 1 September is traditionally a day of celebration when many over-excited children sporting new bags and books start at a new school. School number one in Beslan, with its 900 pupils and 60 teachers, was no different and there was an almost carnival atmosphere as children made their way towards the main hall for a special inauguration ceremony.

The truck's occupants kept quiet, steeling themselves for what they were about to do. Inside sat 17 boeviki, or fighters, some of them Ingush and others Chechen. All were dressed in black combat fatigues complete with balaclavas. Most of the fighters were men, although a small number of women were also present.

The carefully packed explosives entwined around the women's torsos would have been a familiar sight for Russian policemen, had there been any around; these women were "black widows" or suicide bombers, ready to die to persuade Russia to withdraw its forces from Chechnya. They were heavily armed.

Rocket-propelled grenade launchers were stacked up alongside large quantities of mines and explosives, Kalashnikov assault rifles, ammunition and Makarov pistols. They didn't know how long their mission would take. It wasn't clear last night exactly how the group penetrated the school but, two hours later, it was all over, and school number one had been seized.

Teachers who tried to plead with the attackers and lead the children to safety were shot and wounded, the father of one child who put up some kind of resistance was shot dead and at least one policeman who arrived on the scene was also killed.

Some of the Russian media reported that one of the attackers was also shot dead in the firefight with local police officers. The fighters quickly decided that they would use their captives, among whom were a large number of children, to maximum effect.

Many of the hostages were herded into the school's gymnasium, which the fighters lost little time in mining.

Any attack would result in the entire building being blown up, they made clear. Kill one of us and we'll kill 50 children. Wound one of us and we'll kill 20 children, they told the armed men who had by then totally surrounded the school.

Shocked police and law enforcement officers watched in horror as some of the child hostages were forced to appear at the school's windows, a move clearly designed to deter Russian snipers from picking off the fighters.

Inside the school gym, children began to phone their frightened parents on their mobile phones, although by then everyone in Beslan knew what was afoot.

An enterprising group of about 50 children, who may or may not have been accompanied by a teacher, cowered in the school's boiler room during the commotion and were able to slip away unnoticed when the fighters moved the hostages into the gym.

At one point, a girl of about seven 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.

One girl lay wounded on the grounds near the school, but emergency workers could not approach because of shooting.

At first the fighters made no demands to speak of and shot at anyone who tried to move the three bodies that were laying in front of the school in small pools of blood.

A terrified Russia had to wait hours for an explanation which finally came in the form of a video cassette tossed out of one of the school's windows.

The tape has not yet been made fully public but official said the fighters were demanding the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and the release of an unspecified number of their comrades in arms who are being held in Russian jails.

The fighters they want to free were arrested during a brutal cross-border raid by Chechen fighters into Ingushetia in June, which left about 90 people dead.

As the afternoon progressed, Mufti Ruslan Valgatov, north Ossetia's most senior Muslim cleric, made an appearance and tried to mediate in the crisis.

Unlike Chechnya, the small republic is largely Christian, but there is a significant Muslim minority and it was felt that Mr Valgatov's voice might carry some weight.

The mufti told the fighters that he wanted to arrange for food to be brought in and for a peaceful end to the stand-off.

The attackers sent him away empty-handed. They would only talk, they said, with senior officials, including Murat Zyazikov, Ingushetia's President, and a Russian paediatrician called Leonid Roshal who helped hostages during the three-and-a-half day Moscow theatre siege in 2002.

Mr Valgatov said: "Children are innocent and all children are Allah's children. They should think about their actions and about what things will be like when Judgement Day comes."

As darkness fell last night, men in camouflage fatigues with heavy-calibre machine guns were hunkered down on the school's perimeter and other men in civilian clothes with light automatic rifles were pacing up and down nervously.

A VIOLENT AND MURDEROUS STRUGGLE

Two wars by Russia against the republic of Chechnya have failed to check the separatist Chechen rebellion. Here are the most significant rebel attacks:

June 1995

120 people died when more than 200 Chechen fighters seized a hospital in the southern city Budyonovsk. Troops held more than 2,000 patients and personnel hostage, and demanded withdrawal of Russian troops. The siege ended, above, when the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, negotiated.

Jan 1996

Chechens captured the town of Kyzlyar in Dagestan and retreated to the nearby village of Pervomayskoe with more than 2,000 hostages. After a two-week siege, the Chechens escaped to Chechnya with more than 100 captives.

October 2002

700 people were taken hostage by a Chechen "suicide unit" in a Moscow theatre. 129 hostages and 41 fighters died when troops, right, stormed the venue using toxic gas, Troops, above, remove one of the victims.

June 22 2004

Rebels seized interior ministry building in the southern republic of Ingushetia, near Chechnya, and attacked other points in lightning attacks. At least 92 killed.

22 August 2004

rebels infiltrated Grozny disguised as policemen with face-masks, killing 70.

24 August 2004

Two aircraft were blown up almost simultaneously in days leading up to Chechen election, killing all 90 passengers and airline staff. Rescue workers, right, find remains of explosives.

31 August 2004

Ten killed and 51 injured when bomb exploded outside Riga underground station

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