The unimaginable horror inside School Number One

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The Independent Online

Russian television has broadcast horrific and haunting pictures from inside the Beslan school during the three-day siege, showing the masked attackers with the captive schoolchildren - and bombs tied to basketball hoops in the gym.

Russian television has broadcast horrific and haunting pictures from inside the Beslan school during the three-day siege, showing the masked attackers with the captive schoolchildren - and bombs tied to basketball hoops in the gym.

The graphic video showed the 1,000 seated children and their teachers, some semi-naked in the heat, crowded into the gym and guarded by their captors who included masked and armed men and a woman in a black headdress.

The terrorised hostages were holding their hands behind their heads. One terrorist walked through the gym, packed with hostages, where a trail of smeared blood could be seen. Another crouched beside the bomb he was preparing that could be primed to blow up at any moment. A teacher in a red dress was helping two pupils move towards the door, filmed by a camera used by the attackers to record their crime.

One dressed in camouflage and a black hood stood with a boot on what the Russian NTV network said was a book rigged with a detonator. The woman militant stood in a doorway holding a pistol beside her head. There was also footage of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher lying on the floor.

One of the attackers was heard talking on a mobile phone at the end of the one-and-a half minute video. He was not speaking in Russian - a revelation that could boost the official theory that the hostage-takers were international terrorists.

More than 335 people - including 156 children - died in the dramatic and bloody end to the three-day siege, when Russian forces stormed the North Ossetia school where the hostages were held by a suicide commando calling for Chechen independence.

The images were shown soon after Russians had taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in rallies across the country to denounce terrorism. Responding to appeals from President Vladimir Putin's party, more than 130,000 people converged on Red Square.

Waves of people crossed the bridge towards the Kremlin walls carrying Russian and Soviet flags. Their banners proclaimed: "Children are our future, defend them." "Russia's heart is in Beslan today," said another. Other banners had a more overt political message, saying: "We won't give Russia to terrorists" and "The enemy will be crushed; victory will be ours".

Security was tight. Speakers echoed Mr Putin's statements that terrorists must be crushed. But there was no doubt the entire Russian nation wanted to express its solidarity with the victims.

Similar rallies were staged across Russia, including in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, where speakers called for the resignations of local politicians. Smaller demonstrations against terrorism were also held in the capitals of former Soviet republics including Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Opposition politicians said the Moscow rally was intended to counter criticism of the Kremlin's handling of the crisis, which ended with the botched storming of the school on Friday as armed locals broke through a security cordon.

At an unprecedented three-and-a-half hour meeting with a group of foreign journalists and academics at his residence on Monday, Mr Putin was scathing about calls from the West for him to negotiate with Chechen separatists.

"No one has the right to advise us to talk to people like that. I don't advise you to meet (Osama) bin Laden, hold talks with him, and let him dictate what he wants so that he will then leave you alone. But you tell us that we should talk to everyone, including child killers."

The Russian defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, said yesterday that "not a single Chechen" had been identified among the bodies of the 30 hostage-takers. He said there was one Russian and a couple of Ingush among the dead hostage-takers, half of whom have now been identified. But Russian authorities seem unwilling to give details for fear of unleashing revenge attacks on the ethnic groups involved.

Three hostage-takers were captured by the Russian forces, and one has accused the elected Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, and the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, of having ordered the hostage-taking. Mr Maskhadov's spokesman Akhmed Zakayev denies the Chechen leader was involved and says the attack was aimed at discrediting Mr Maskhadov's faction.

The European Union advocates a political solution to the 10-year Chechen conflict and outraged Russia by asking for an explanation of the conduct of Russian special forces.

"What would the Spanish have said if we had asked them to explain their actions after the Madrid bombing?" said a defence ministry source yesterday, unable to contain his anger.

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