Huge toll as school siege ends in battle

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The Independent Online

At least 150 hostages were feared killed and hundreds were wounded after a bloody battle brought the Russian school siege to an end today.

At least 150 hostages were feared killed and hundreds were wounded after a bloody battle erupted at the Russian school siege today.

An ITN cameraman reported seeing 100 bodies inside the gym where many of the hostages had been held. And the Interfax news agency cited a Russian presidential aide as saying the toll could be significantly more than 150.

Meanwhile health officials reported that more than 560 people were injured throughout the battle as the aide said there might have been as many as 1,200 hostages, 70 per cent of them children.

The hostages who escaped included naked and partially dressed children. Even those who had no injury were desperate for water.

Up to 13 fighters were thought to have escaped in the confusion and small arms fire and explosions continued for hours around the school as they were pursued by special forces. Six hours after the battle began, three were reportedly still blockaded in the school basement and it was feared they were still holding some children hostage.

Of those fighters who were killed, the presidential aide was reported as saying that nine were Arab mercenaries.

Russia's forces sought to distance themselves from responsibility for starting the battle, saying it had not been planed. A Moscow TV station quoted sources claiming that the first blast happened when a hostage-taker accidently set off her explosive belt. This had blown a hole in the wall and hostages tried to flee through it.

In other reports, the battle was said to have begun after a bus was sent in to remove some bodies. A group of hostages chose that moment to attempt to flee and the special forces had been "forced to act". The hole had been blown in the wall by forces to enable the hostages to escape.

Other reports said many of the injured had been caught in explosions either set off by the fighters or which went off when booby-traps were triggered.

Whatever started the battle, hours of confusion followed - with explosions and gunfire throughout. Parents, some even carrying their own weapons, gained access to the school grounds even as special forces were continuing their search for terrorists.

The hostage-takers had been demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya.