Inside School Number One: the full horror of Russia's 9/11

Toll more than 330 and still rising. Putin admits: 'We made mistakes'
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The Independent Online

The death toll in the worst terror outrage since 11 September rose well above 300 yesterday as President Vladimir Putin called the Russian school siege part of "a full-scale war" on the nation by international terrorists, and made a rare admission of weakness.

The death toll in the worst terror outrage since 11 September rose well above 300 yesterday as President Vladimir Putin called the Russian school siege part of "a full-scale war" on the nation by international terrorists, and made a rare admission of weakness.

Mr Putin made a national TV address as hundreds of distraught people in the Caucasus town of Beslan pleaded with the authorities for information to help them find their loved ones, more than 24 hours after a three-day siege at Beslan's School Number One ended in bloodshed.

Inside the school yesterday, workers completed the grim job yesterday of clearing corpses from the gym where hundreds of children had been held for three days without food or water, surrounded by explosives.

Calling the siege a "grim reminder of the nature of the terrorists we face", US President George Bush told an election rally in Ohio: "We saw the horror of terror in Russia, and I can just imagine the heartfelt anguish of the mums and dads of those Russian kids."

The official number of people killed, according to the regional emergency situations minister, Boris Dzgoyev, was 323, including 156 children. Medical sources said more than 542 people, including 336 children, were in hospital after the crisis ended in explosions and gunfire, but officials have given contradictory accounts throughout. Some estimates put the death toll at around 360.

There was equal confusion over the number and identity of the hostage-takers. Mr Dzgoyev said that 35 men and women with explosives and weapons had been "eliminated" after the 10-hour battle, which erupted shortly after 1pm local time on Friday. His statement was in sharp contrast to claims by a senior prosecutor, who said there were only 26 terrorists, and all were killed. Earlier claims that three had been captured, and that three or four others had escaped, appeared to have been forgotten.

Who the hostage-takers were, and what they wanted, were similarly unclear. Officials were quick to link the attack to Russia's bloody war in neighbouring Chechnya, as well as to international terror groups, amid reports that at least nine Arabs were among the hostage-takers.

Mr Putin, who made a lightning dawn visit to the town in the far southern province of North Ossetia, told Russians: "We showed weakness, and the weak are attacked. We haven't shown enough understanding of the complexity and danger of what is happening in our own country and in the world."

Ordering the borders of the North Caucasus region to be sealed while the attackers were sought, Mr Putin announced a shake-up of the military, special forces and emergency services, saying: "We weren't able to react to [the hostage-takers] in an adequate fashion."

But there was considerable anger towards the authorities for downplaying the number of dead and wounded, and the number of people in the school in the first place. The authorities had claimed there were 354; the real number turned out to be closer to 1,200.

Beslan, a town of 30,000, was quiet last night. The town's cultural centre, which had acted as a makeshift reception centre, was deserted.

In the nearby city of Vladikavkaz, hundreds queued outside the overwhelmed morgue for the gruesome task of identifying their relatives. Dozens of stretchers lay outside with corpses on them, their skin the colour of powdered milk.

Most were children or women, naked bodies covered with black tarpaulins or plastic sheets. Relatives accompanied by nurses picked their way past rows of stretchers, holding handkerchiefs or gauze masks to their faces against the stench.

One woman pleaded with an official to help her: "I beg you. I want to know where my child is, how many days have we waited?" Local officials set up tables at which they tried to appease angry relatives by drawing up detailed lists of names, addresses and ages of the missing. One list on just one of the tables ran to 38 names, nearly all children between the ages of six and 11.

At the main hospital in Vladikavkaz, one of several dealing with gunshot wounds and burns among victims, the head doctor, Uruzmag Dzhanyev, said 250 children were being treated. "Many children - even those who live - will be invalids. Some do not have eyes," he said. Anger among relatives was also directed at the President. "Putin came here at four this morning," said Boris, whose neighbour and all her family disappeared. "He saw no one and talked to no one. He just wanted to show the world how young and handsome he is, but he hasn't helped and he won't help, and he can't stop this happening again."

In his address Mr Putin said: "Some want to tear a juicy bit of flesh off us ... others are helping them, assuming that Russia ... still represents a threat to them. And that the threat needs to be eliminated. Terrorism is an instrument for achieving these aims."

The President said the terrorists were trying "to fracture society and to paralyse people's will". It would not be possible for people to continue their "carefree way of life". But he urged Russians not to give in or be intimidated.