(AP) BESLAN, Russia – Commandos seized control of a school in southern Russia where militants held hundreds of hostages Friday, Russian news agencies reported. The assault came after explosions boomed from the area and dozens of hostages, including naked children, fled.
The ITAR-Tass news agency said 160 children had been hurt in the raid and five militants were killed. Several of the militants who had captured the building Wednesday were seen running away and firing indiscriminately, and ITAR-Tass said five militants were killed.
The assault came after about 30 women and children hostages fled the building. Some children were covered in blood, some of them carried away to a temporary hospital set up behind an armored personnel carrier. Many were only partly clothed because of the stifling heat in the gymnasium where they had been held since the militants took the building, and drank eagerly from bottles of water given to them once they reached safety.
The firing subsided after about 45 minutes, but then kicked up again later. ITAR-Tass said the soldiers blew a hole in the building to help with the raid and other reports said some of the raiders had escaped, possibly taking children with them, and were fleeing Beslan.
The Interfax news agency reported earlier that the school’s roof had collapsed — possibly from the explosives some militants had strapped to their bodies. After seizing the school, the militants reportedly threatened to blow it up if troops tried to rescue the hostages and warned they would kill prisoners if any of their gang was hurt.
On Thursday, the militants had freed about 26 hostages, all women and children, and Russian officials had been in negotiations with the militants since the standoff began.
There were conflicting reports of the number of hostages who had been taken, with official saying about 350 and people among a small group freed on Wednesday saying there were about 1,500.
The militants’ demands had not been clear. Reports after the standoff began Wednesday said the attackers demanded the release of people jailed after attacks on police posts in June that killed more than 90 people in Ingushetia, a region between North Ossetia and the neighboring republic of Chechnya (news – web sites). However, officials said Thursday that the hostage-takers had not clearly formulated their demands.
After negotiations that ran through the night and into Thursday, Alan Doyev, a spokesman for the North Ossetia Interior Ministry, said that “so far we have not heard the terrorists’ clearly formulated demands.”
Authorities estimated 15 to 24 militants held the school.
The militants’ identity was also murky.
Lev Dzugayev, a North Ossetian official, said the attackers might be from Chechnya or Ingushetia. Law enforcement sources in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers were believed to include Chechens, Ingush, Russians and a North Ossetian suspected of participating in the Ingushetia violence.
Russia was on edge following the nearly simultaneous bombings on two jetliners last week, a suicide bombing in Moscow on Tuesday and the school siege.
The upsurge in violence has been a blow to Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush Chechnya’s rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond the republic’s borders.
Two major hostage-taking raids by Chechen rebels outside the war-torn region in the past decade prompted forceful Russian rescue operations that led to many deaths. The most recent, the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, ended after a knockout gas was pumped into the building, debilitating the captors but causing almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.