Gunmen with explosives strapped around their waists raided a school in southern Russia near war-torn Chechnya taking hundreds hostage, including Christian school children and missionaries. In Russia’s fourth terror attack within a week, at least 17 masked and heavily armed people burst into the courtyard of the school in the town of Beslan, where students were lining up for their first day in school.
So far, nine adults, including one hostage-taker, have reportedly been killed and four injured after hostage-takers, who reportedly included women, herded the children and adults into a gym demanding to meet with the head of the local region of North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia, and with Leonid Roshal, a doctor who conducted negotiations with hostage-takers at a Moscow theater in October 2002.
“Three people ran into the courtyard,” one boy told NTV television. “At first I though it was a joke. Then they began to shoot and we started running.”
North Ossetia’s interior minister, Kazbek Dzantiev, reported, “The number of hostages is probably around 300 and 400.” Among those held captives, the majority consists of children between the ages of six and 17, news agencies reported.
Dzantiev also said the hostage-takers had threatened to kill 50 children for every abductor killed.
"For every destroyed rebel, they will kill 50 children, and 20 children for every injured rebel," he was quoted as saying by news agencies and television.
A representative from the U.S. supported organization, Russian Ministries, which has been actively involved at the school this year, told Mission Network News (MNN) that two staff members and their Christian children were on-site the complex.
"One of them is (the) coordinator for (the) region there and the other one is the pastor of the church there in (the school town of) Belsan," Sergey Rakhuba said. "And it happens that they are brothers by blood and by faith and their eight children are there, all of their children are there.”
Russian Ministries' Director, Genady Terkun, who was outside the school grounds, told reporters that many of the children had just returned from Christian summer camps supported by his organization.
Mission Vera, a local partner of Hungarian Baptist Aid, also reported that three children of local Baptist pastor Sergei Totjev, and five children of church elder Tajmurat Totjev are among the hostages stuck in the school building. They report that the gunmen have no food or drink to supply the children with, and that negotiations have broken down after hostage-takers turned off their mobile phones.
Mission Vera and Hungarian Baptist Aid are following the crisis as closely as possible, have already contacted the families and are ready to send in food items in the building, should there be any opportunities.
Currently, authorities have cordoned off the area around the school, where several tanks and armored personnel carriers and dozens of troops and police had taken up positions.
All entrances to North Ossetia from neighboring republics have been closed, the republic's prime minister told Interfax. "We have increased security measures in all towns," including all schools and kindergartens, he said.
Roads into North Ossetia from Georgia were also closed, a spokesman at the regional office of the FSB (ex-KGB) security services said.
The Christian radio station HCJB World Radio, based in Colorado, said the latest violence is one of the reasons why they are looking to expand Christian radio in the region. "This is an opportunity for us in Christian radio to deal with life's real issues," Sub-Regional Director Mark Irwin told MNN.
"When things come down to things such as terrorism, I think people look for answers to life's real questions, but we're trusting in the Lord and even more reason why we need to develop Christian radio in this country so that people will know the hope that's only be found in Jesus," he said.
According to the most recent reports, the militants released at least 26 women and children Thursday, and officials expressed hope that negotiations would bring more progress in the standoff in southern Russia.
Meanwhile crowds of hostages’ relatives continue to keep vigil outside the school.
Sources say Chechen rebels are also responsible for the latest string of violence in Russia that are “hitting close to missionary families,” according to MNN. Last week they claimed responsibility for the downing of two passenger planes leaving Moscow, and on Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing 10 people.