Death Toll Above 320 in Russian School Attack | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.09.2004
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Europe

Death Toll Above 320 in Russian School Attack

While estimates of the number of people killed in the hostage-taking drama in a Russian school rose ever higher on Saturday, many questions remained unanswered the day after a siege put an end to the crisis.

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Hundreds of hostages were killed or injured

The death toll rose beyond 340 at the North Ossetian school in Beslan, Russia, where Russian special forces and heavily armed suspected Chechen separatists had traded gunfire Friday, bringing to an end the hostage-taking drama that had victimized hundreds of people.

Russian news agencies reported that 323 hostages, including 156 children, had been killed in the school tragedy, as well as 26 hostage-takers. More than 500 former hostages were injured.

All told, 1,200 people -- far more than earlier official estimates of 350 -- are thought to have been held hostage in the school, which was captured by militants on Wednesday during a ceremony to mark the beginning of the academic year. The hostages-takers denied their victims water, food and medication throughout the ordeal.

Putin says mistakes were made

Russia would soon take measures to improve the safety of its citizens, President Vladimir Putin said in a television address, announcing that a new system would be introduced to control the North Caucasus region, improve law enforcement and crisis management.

Putin blamed international terrorism for the hostage-taking and said that Russia had shown weakness in fighting terrorism.

"In general we need to admit that we did not show an understanding of the complexities and dangers of the processes occurring in our own country and in the world, he said.

Putin visited Beslan in the early morning hours of Saturday and announced that he had ordered the region sealed off while a hunt for accomplices to the hostage-taking was underway.

Several of the hostage-takers were reported Friday to have been at large after escaping from the school during Russian troops' siege of the building.

Two of the militants had been taken alive, officials said. Nine of the dead were "Arab mercenaries," Valery Andreyev, the region's federal security service chief said, adding fuel to Putin's contention that international terrorists were involved.

Pandemonium

The mayhem began Friday around 1:00 p.m. local time (9:00 UCT). The hostage-takers allowed Russian special forces to remove the bodies of men who had been executed from the school. At the same time, eyewitnesses report, one of the bombs that had been strung up in the school by the hostage-takers accidentally went off. A portion of roof caved in, killing numerous hostages. Others tried to escape from the building, running to safety as the militants shot at them. Around the same time, the Russian troops received orders to storm the school.

Heavy machine gun and grenade fire went on until around 2:00 local time.

North Ossetia is the only predominantly Orthodox province in the North Caucasus. Bordering on Chechnya, it was Moscow's power base during its war against Chechen separatists.

The attack in Beslan followed a suicide bombing outside a Moscow metro station on Tuesday that killed eight people. The week before two passenger planes crashed almost simultaneously at a Moscow airport, which officials say was caused be explosives on board.

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