Day murder and mayhem came to school

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The Independent Online

The children were laid out in a row. Fourteen bodies on the dry grass, their eyes rolled upwards, their faces caked in blood, frozen in time with shock. All wore only their underwear. Bloodstained white bedsheets barely covered their tiny torsos. Pink cardboard labels were tagged to their small feet, marked with their names.

The children were laid out in a row. Fourteen bodies on the dry grass, their eyes rolled upwards, their faces caked in blood, frozen in time with shock. All wore only their underwear. Bloodstained white bedsheets barely covered their tiny torsos. Pink cardboard labels were tagged to their small feet, marked with their names.

Hours earlier, they had been huddled together, frightened out of their wits in Beslan's school gymnasium; now they were laid out on the grass in front of the town's white-washed morgue which was too full to accommodate them.

Inside the morgue, at least 40 more bodies were piled on metal plinths and scattered on the floor, already starting to decompose in the blistering September heat. There were said to be many more corpses in the town's sprawling hospital.

Locals covered their faces with handkerchiefs to stifle the smell as ­ one or two at a time ­ people went in to try to identify their loved ones.

The 14 bodies outside were so small and the children so young ­ some looked like they were just five years old ­ that sometimes two children were squeezed on to the dark green military stretchers.

The air around Beslan's morgue and hospital was filled with wailing yesterday evening as the brutal reality came home that so many people ­ most of them children ­ may have been slaughtered in the bloody denouement of a 53-hour siege after Russian special forces had stormed the school. Health officials last night put the death toll at over 200.

It is unclear how the battle between the hostage-takers and the Russian troops began but it seems to have been triggered when a number of children tried to escape at about 10am BST.

The frightened children chose their moment carefully, making a run for it when a bus which was supposed to pick up dead bodies that had been lying in the baking sun for two days drove into the school grounds. But when the children began to run the hostage-takers opened fire.

Watching the unfolding events with horror Russian forces returned fire, prompting the terrorists to detonate explosives which brought down the roof of the school gymnasium where most of the children had been held captive. And then, as one Russian special forces soldier put it, "all hell broke loose". Anxious relatives waiting outside shuddered with fear when they heard the two enormous explosions which heralded the beginning of the slaughter. Rocket-propelled grenades screeched across the sky as MiG helicopter gunships hovered overhead, feeding intelligence to Russian special forces troops on the ground.

Machine-gun, pistol and high-velocity rifle shots then filled the air for the next five hours as the authorities fought a desperate battle to get to the hostages before it was too late.

Parents and local men armed with hunting rifles and machineguns besieged the building, desperate to get to their relatives.

Many of the victims were treated at the scene amid the chaos of the gun battle but, at the last count, 556 were taken to hospital, 332 of them children. One official said later that about 700 people had been wounded.

Apart from gunshot wounds, many of the casualties were dehydrated after being refused water by the hostage-takers; some of the children said they had been forced to drink their own urine.

In the hospital morgue yesterday afternoon, a grief-stricken man clutched his dead son's hand, unable to cry any more, while three women collapsed on their knees when they found the little boy they were looking for. The boy's grandmother nervously pulled back the white sheet to reveal his bomb-blasted body, the flesh lacerated and hanging off in places. His mother screamed, beating the ground with her fists.

Strangled, tear-choked refrains of "Oh my God" echoed everywhere as those who had lost loved ones vented grief.

"Vladislav", screamed one woman repeatedly as she staggered around on the grass. "I'm going to go mad. They should have killed me instead."

Several women collapsed in shock and needed treatment when they discovered the worst by consulting hastily printed sheets listing the dead and living. Most simply cried until there were no more tears.

Sitting on a bench surrounded by hundreds of weeping people, Bela could not stop sobbing after finding the body of Regina, her 14-year-old niece, in the hospital. "Poor little girl. Her mother doesn't even know she is dead yet because she is still in the hospital searching for another child. I'd already told her that Regina was safe. What am I going to tell her now?

"They killed her," she intoned repeatedly, overwrought with shock and grief.

"It was definitely her. I could tell by the eyes."

A few metres away, a man called Goram stared listlessly into the middle distance as he said that his eight-year-old niece was still unaccounted for.

Yet the day had started with hope after Lev Dzugaev, a spokesman for North Ossetia's President, said a deal had been struck to collect the corpses.

At that stage, he reassured the media, "according to the information we have all the children are safe and we hope to secure the release of more of them today". At 1.05pm (10.05am BST) Beslan's fear-racked residents knew, however, that all was not well.

As the shooting intensified, waiting relatives could not contain themselves and many of the women began to shriek, shake their heads and stagger.

It wasn't too long, however, before a crowd of relatives nervously watching Russian soldiers sprinting for cover gave an enormous collective sigh of relief as a burly man in a Hawaiian shirt was spotted running across the road with a small boy in his arms. The boy's face was contorted in horror and shock and his skin badly burnt. A small trickle of hostages then began to emerge into the sunlight, some on their own feet but most cradled in rescuers' arms or prostrate in the back of an ambulance or an estate car.

A boy in black underpants staggered along the pavement while his mother, in a red dress, followed closely behind.

Shortly afterwards a girl on a stretcher, her dress soaked in her own blood, was rushed out. Cars beeped their horns as they rushed the victims towards the hospital while local men clutching their weapons implored the authorities to allow them to help.

"I have to help," said one man. "My daughter is inside." Another man who had apparently been held hostage walked along the pavement unsteadily. His eyes wide with horror, his arms shaking uncontrollably his gaunt face resembled the tortured figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

A man who had been praying suddenly reached for his mobile phone. "Are you sure it's him? He's in hospital?" he shouted before sprinting to his car.

A steady stream of ambulances then raced away from the school as people strained to peer inside the speeding vehicles to see if their loved ones were safe. The main collection point for the hostages quickly became chaotic.

Local men desperate to help turned their Ladas into makeshift ambulances, racing back and forth as soldiers and civilians rushed down an alley leading from the playground with victims in their arms.

Fierce gun battles between the hostage-takers and Russia's elite special forces ­ the Alfa unit ­ and Omon, the riot police, raged near by and the rescuers frequently had to break off their efforts as shots cracked into the air.

A blonde woman, without any shoes and wearing a dress stained with her own blood, stumbled towards an ambulance as a soldier carried a small child who looked no more than three years old to one of the waiting cars. The child showed no signs of life and, like many of the children who were extracted from the school, his skin was badly singed.

On the grass verge opposite, three bodies on stretchers covered in white sheets had to be abandoned where they lay after shots forced the rescuers to fall back once more.

In School No 1's playground, pools of blood soaked the Tarmac where Beslan's children used to play basketball. In one corner of the playground, a child's denim cap lay alongside a colourful handkerchief and a bouquet of red flowers, the cellophane wrapping smeared with blood.

Wednesday 1 September had been a celebration for Russia's children, the first day of a new academic year, and many of them would have taken flowers to school. Yesterday the flowers' petals were scattered over a large bloodstain.

A few metres away, a sound system in the playground that looked like it had been set up to conduct negotiations with the hostage-takers was marooned in the playground as a rebel sniper rained down fire on people below. Children's chairs were upturned alongside enormous speakers and the Tarmac beneath the desk was fractured where it had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The gym where the children had been held was a smoking wreck. Its exterior blackened with explosives, its gaping windows blown out, its white walls ominously bare, smoke pouring out of what little was left of its roof which had clearly been blown up. Rescuers were reported to have retrieved about a hundred dead bodies from its explosive-shattered interior.

The rest of the school also resembled a war zone, its corrugated iron roof on the verge of collapse, and an armoured personnel carrier positioned against its wall, behind which soldiers sheltered as the battle for the school wore on during the afternoon. A hostile sniper, apparently positioned on the roof, fired at rescuers, hours after the authorities claimed to have got the situation under control and a fierce firefight raged behind the gym around a school building in which the hostage-takers appeared to have taken cover.

The authorities said later, that the school was in their hands and that all of the terrorists had been either killed or captured. From a 40-strong gang, 27 hostage-takers were killed. At least three hostage-takers were captured alive while some tried to escape through the crowd of relatives waiting outside but were later caught.

An old woman who had been among the hostages recounted her ordeal to a group of local youths nearby, her eyes flashing with anger as she spoke.

"They threatened to shoot us when we went to the toilets if we used the opportunity to drink water. Can you imagine?" she said. "There are still a lot of people in there, especially children," she said as a machine-gun opened up about 200 metres away. "It was awful." A white-coated psychiatrist sat beside her, comforting the shaken woman, encouraging her to unburden herself.

Anger towards the hostage-takers was evident. A band of three men who claimed to have travelled from neighbouring South Ossetia said they had caught one of the hostage takers and "beaten him until he was almost dead".

The men, who refused to give their names, said the police had pulled them off the man, who was bearded and wore a top emblazoned with some kind of Arabic slogan.

"These bastards deserve to die," said one of them.

"They raped those children inside." After visiting the hospital, the men sped off in their BMW to hunt for more hostage-takers.

The hospital itself was a scene of devastation. Emergency operating rooms were set up in rows of rubber tents where surgeons could be seen operating on severely wounded people.

Some children lay on stretchers surrounded by their relatives as groups of women whose children had been less lucky huddled together and simply wailed.

In the afternoon, the authorities had claimed the fighting was all but over, but the authorities have claimed a lot in the past few days and people have stopped believing them. They said there were 354 hostages; the real number appears to have been closer to 1,200.

As darkness fell in Beslan, large explosions continued to rock the town, rattling window frames and sending people running. That, said officials, was merely part of the de-mining operation.

Gunfire could also be heard sporadically as the last of the mopping up operations continued. Cold rain began to fall, compounding the misery for the town's terrorised and terrified inhabitants.

The violent end to the siege came shortly after Aleksandr Dzasokhov, the President of North Ossetia, assured hundreds of relatives that the use of force was not being considered, while adding that patience was running out. He revealed that the authorities had also asked Chechnya's separatist leaders to help negotiate a peaceful end to a crisis that brought Russia to a standstill.

That yesterday's events were linked to those in neighbouring Chechnya was clear. Mr Dzasokhov revealed that he had had orders to open a channel of communication with Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist leader who was Chechnya's President until he fled the invading Russian forces in 1999.

Both Mr Dzasokhov and the regional political leader Ruslan Aushev, who helped negotiate the release of 26 hostages ­ women and very young children on Thursday ­ had earlier telephoned London to speak to Akhmed Zakayev, who is Mr Maskhadov's chief representative abroad. That amounted to a reversal of President Vladimir Putin's hardline policy never to negotiate with people he denounces as terrorists.

Mr Zakayev, a former actor turned separatist who lives in exile in London and whose extradition is being sought by the Russians, reportedly said that he and Mr Maskhadov were prepared to help the Russians end the siege peacefully.

"I assured them that President Maskhadov was as distraught as they were," Mr Zakayev told The New York Times only minutes before chaos erupted in the town of 35,000. These, the first contacts with Chechnya's separatist leaders ­ since a fleeting meeting between Mr Zakayev and a Russian emissary in 2001 ­ underscored the desperation of Mr Putin.

As a woman called Elsa walked along Beslan's shell-shocked streets she shouted to neighbours. "Have you found Vika? Have you found Vadim, what about Rosa," she inquired. Her neighbours answered as one: "No, no news, nothing, although they say they may be at the hospital."

Russia is a country inured to suffering by years of appalling violence. But even by these grim standards, yesterday was the blackest of days.