More than 100 bodies were reported to be lying in the burned-out gym of the Russian school where an armed siege ended in its third day after commandos stormed the building.
ITN reporter Julian Manyon, who entered the school as fighting continued, said his Russian cameraman Sacha “did manage to get through for a few minutes and, in his estimates, there is as many as 100 bodies lying on the smouldering floor of the gym.
“Fighting is at the moment continuing.“
Describing the scene, he said: “It a large structure…an entire wing. The roof has gone and caved in.
A local official, Azamat Kadykov, told the hostages’ relatives that 20 adult men had been executed.
Officials only admitted to at least seven people dead and 310 others wounded today in the onslaught .
Troops killed five of the hostage-takers but 13 others escaped, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.
Troops backed by tanks were pursuing the militants, some of whom were said to be holed up in a house in the area.
Russian authorities claimed to have control of the school, and the Interfax news agency reported that all the hostages had been evacuated from the school gym in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, near the Chechnya border.
But gunfire continued to ring out some three hours after the commandos’ raid, and huge columns of smoke billowed from the building.
The scene around the school was chaotic: people running through the streets, heavy smoke overhead, the cries of children and the wounded carried off on stretchers.
Ambulances sped to hospitals, windows streaked with blood.
At least four of the admitted dead were children. Sixty-nine children were admitted to one hospital – five in grave condition, the head of the hospital said. A nurse spreading sheets on stretchers said Russian officials expected “very many” wounded.
It was not immediately clear what led to the events of today, the third day of the hostage crisis in Beslan, but a top regional leader said the militants had demanded that Russian troops pull out of Chechnya – the first official information firmly linking the attack to the Chechen war.
Early reports suggested the militants had agreed to let Russia retrieve the bodies of 10 to 20 hostages who had been killed.
Emergency personnel went to get the bodies, and the militants began setting off bombs and opening fire on people around the school, ITAR-Tass said.
Some 30 women and children broke out of the building, some bloodied and screaming, and commandos then launched the assault.
The militants reportedly fired at children who ran from the building, and unconfirmed reports said some of the hostage-takers, possibly including women bearing suicide belts, had fled during the chaos and may have taken hostages with them.
During the raid, the militants were separated into three groups – some with hostages, police said.
Women escaping the building were seen fainting and others, some covered in blood, were carried away on stretchers.
Interfax said the school’s roof had collapsed – possibly from the explosives some militants had strapped to their bodies. The militants reportedly wired parts of the school with bombs and threatened to blow up the building if authorities tried to storm.
There were conflicting reports of the number of hostages being held at the school.
Officials had initially said about 350 – but some freed hostages among a small group freed yesterday put the number at about 1,500. On Thursday, the militants had freed about 26 hostages, all women and children.
Russian officials had negotiated on and off with the militants since shortly after the crisis began, and they said the hostage-takers had repeatedly refused offers of food and water.
“They are very cruel people. We are facing a ruthless enemy,” said Leonid Roshal, a doctor involved in the negotiations. “I talked with them many times on my cell phone, but every time I ask to give food, water and medicine to the hostages they refuse my request.”
President Vladimir Putin had said that everything possible would be done to end the “horrible” crisis and save the lives of the children.