Commandos stormed the Russian siege school today as near-naked children fled the building amid explosions and gunfire.
In less than an hour, the special forces claimed to have full control of the school which had been seized by armed men and women on Wednesday. Gunfire could however still be heard at the scene, which cast doubt on the claim.
At least five children were said to have been killed and 180 injured and fighting was still going on at the school almost three hours later.
However, officials said that all the captives had been evacuated.
Attack and transport helicopters hovered over the building after a series of explosions appeared to bring down the school roof where the more than 1,000 hostages were being held.
Officials said they had not planned to storm the school today but events were dictated by circumstances.
Russian news agencies said the attack began when soldiers attempted to remove the bodies of people who were killed outside the school in the trouble Caucasus region when suicide gunmen took it over on Wednesday.
The presumed Chechen gunmen and women inside the school then reportedly opened fire on the soldiers.
Children, most in their underwear, began fleeing the building – some covered in blood. Some of the gunmen mingled with them in an attempt to escape.
Ambulance rushed the injured away from the scene and 180 children and 70 adults were taken to hospitals.
Commandos blew a hole in the school wall to aid the hostages escape
After an hour, the Russian military claimed it had control of the school but major gun battles still raged in Beslan, the North Ossetian town of 30,000 people near the Chechnya border.
Russian TV said five of the gunmen or women had been killed and forces were seeking two gunwomen, dressed in white, who had fled the school.
Eleven other gunmen, who had threatened to commit suicide rather that surrender the school, were also said to be trying to escape from the town.
Some made it to a house where they were surrounded by Russian troops. Tank fire could be heard from the scene.
Mothers escaping the building were seen fainting and others, some covered in blood, were carried away on stretchers.
After the explosions, heavy gunfire broke out from both sides and helicopters circled the area.
Several hundred hostages apparently remained in the building as the firing raged.
At least half of the hostages were estimated to be children and officials earlier said that infants were among them.
A security official said: “Those children who remained in the school, in general, did not suffer. The ones who suffered were the children in the group which ran from the school and on whom the fighters opened fire.”
The siege began on Wednesday morning – the first day of the Russian school year – when about two dozen suicide gunmen and women burst into the school in the small town of Beslan near the Chechan border.
The school was packed with parents and children – 350 said officials – 1,500 said locals.
Fearing a repeat of the end to the Moscow theatre siege in 2002 when more than 120 captives died, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that force would only be used as a final resort to end the school stand-off.
The school attackers – who wore suicide bomb belts around their waists – were demanding an independent Chechnya.
Negotiators reported making little progress in talks with the hostage takers who yesterday freed about 30 mothers and infants.
One of those freed described a frightening scene
“You know, there aren’t 350 people in there, but 1,500 in all. People are lying one on top of another,” Zalina Dzandarova, a 27-year-old woman, told the newspaper Kommersant.