Suicide attackers seized a packed school in Russia’s troubled Caucuses region today and threatened to kill 50 children for every gunman “destroyed".
The 17 gunmen and women – wearing suicide bomb belts – were holding more than 400 hostages, including 200 children in the school in North Ossetia, bordering Chechnya.
Suspicion immediately fell on Chechan separatists who have been battling the Russian army for more than than a decade in their pursuit of an independent nation.
The assault came a day after a suicide bomber – believed to be a Chechan woman - killed 10 people in Moscow.
Tonight, negotiators made contact with the gunmen but a long stand-off was expected.
President Vladimir Putin cut short a Black Sea holiday with security officials.
Officials said at least two people were killed in the latest assault in a country the defence minister said has been challenged by a declaration of terrorist war. The ITAR-Tass news agency put the death toll at eight.
Camouflage-clad troops carrying heavy-calibre machine guns scrambled into positions around Middle School Number One in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. About 1,000 people, mostly parents, crowded outside police cordons demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.
One girl lay wounded on the grounds near the school, but emergency workers could not approach because the area was coming under fire, said regional Emergency Situations Minister Ministry Boris Dzgoyev.
In a tense stand-off, the militants placed a sniper on an upper floor of the building, and throughout the day the Russian media reported sporadic gunfire and the sound of explosions coming from the building.
The hostage-taking came less than 24 hours after a suicide bomber detonated her explosives outside a Moscow subway station, killing at least nine people, and just over a week after near simultaneous explosions caused two Russian planes to crash, killing all 90 people on board.
The string of attacks, widely suspected to be the work of separatist Chechen rebels or their sympathisers, come as a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush the rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond Chechnya’s borders with deadly effect.
“In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front,” Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said to reporters before the hostage-taking put the nation even more on edge.
Putin for the second time in a week interrupted his working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and returned to Moscow to deal with the unfolding crisis.
News agency ITAR-Tass, citing local hospitals, said one person died at the scene and seven in hospitals. Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev put the death toll at four.
Two bodies were visible outside the school, Dzgoyev said.
The school seizure began after a ceremony marking the first day of Russia’s school year, a big event in which students, often accompanied by parents, arrive at school carrying bouquets of flowers for their new teacher. Most of the children taken hostage were under 14 years old.
The attackers – men and women – drove up in a covered truck of the type often used for troop transport. Gunfire broke out after the raid and at least three teachers and two police were wounded, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesman for southern Russia. Regional emergency officials said 11 men and two women suffered gunshot wounds.
Most of the hostages were herded into the school gym, but others – primarily children – were ordered to stand at the windows, he said. The attackers warned they would blow up the building if the police tried to storm it. Polyansky said most of the attackers were wearing suicide belts.
At least 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building’s boiler room during the raid, said Ruslan Ayamov, spokesman for North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry. Media reports suggested that as many as 50 children managed to flee in the chaos of the raid.
“I was standing near the gates, music was playing when I saw three armed people running with guns, at first I though it was a joke, when they fired in the air and we fled,” teenage witness Zarubek Tsumartov said.
At one point, television networks showed footage of a girl in a floral print dress and a red bow in her hair running around a corner apparently after fleeing from the school, her hand held by a flak-jacketed soldier, followed by an older woman.
Hours after the seizure, a security official said authorities had established contact with the hostage-takers.
The official said that negotiations “are just, just beginning” and that brief contact had not allowed authorities to evaluate the situation in the school.
Earlier, the school attackers demanded talks with regional officials and a well-known paediatrician, Leon Roshal who had aided hostages during the deadly seizure of a Moscow theatre in 2002, Polyansky said.
The hostage-takers also demanded the release of fighters detained over a series of attacks on police facilities in neighbouring Ingushetia in June, said regional officials. Those raids killed more than 90 people.
Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the region’s Interior Ministry, said the hostage-takers threatened that “for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter – 20 (children).”
Parents of the seized children recorded a video appeal to President Vladimir Putin to fulfil the terrorists’ demands, said Fatima Khabolova, a spokeswoman for the regional parliament.
“We pray to God that this may end without bloodshed,” said Marina Dzhibilova, whose two sons were inside the school. She was very distraught and had to be supported by her sisters.
The attack was the latest in a string of violence that has tormented Russians and plagued the government of Putin, who came to power in 2000 vowing to crush the Chechen rebels.
Terrorism fears in Russia have risen markedly following the plane crashes and the suicide bombing outside a Moscow underground station on Tuesday night. The blast by a female attacker tore through a busy area between the station and a department store, killing at least nine people and wounding dozens of others.
Russia called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which scheduled consultations for tonight on the school seizure and other issues.
A militant Muslim web site published a statement claiming responsibility for the Moscow bombing on behalf of the ”Islambouli Brigades,” a group that also claimed responsibility for the airliner crashes. The statements could not immediately be verified.
The statement said Tuesday’s bombing was a blow against Putin, “who slaughtered Muslims time and again.” Putin has refused to negotiate with rebels in predominantly Muslim Chechnya who have fought Russian forces for most of the past decade, saying they must be wiped out.
Several female suicide bombers allegedly connected with the rebels have caused carnage in Moscow and other Russian cities in a series of attacks in recent years.
Many of the bombers are believed to be so-called “black widows,” who have lost husbands or male relatives in the fighting that has gripped Chechnya for most of the past decade. Investigators of the plane crashes are seeking information about two Chechen women believed to have been aboard – one on each plane.
The latest violence also appeared timed to last Sunday’s presidential election in Chechnya, a Kremlin-backed vote aimed at undermining support for rebels by establishing a modicum of civil order in the war-shattered republic. The previous Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed in a bombing on May 9.
In 1995, Chechen rebels led by Basayev seized a hospital in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, taking some 2,000 people hostage. The six-day stand-off ended with a fierce Russian police assault. Some 100 people died in the incident.