World leaders sent messages of support and sympathy to Russia after a 53-hour hostage crisis led to the deaths of more than 200 people—dozens of which were children.
Official details and figures fluctuated amid the confusion and bloodshed in Beslan in North Ossetia region bordering troubled Chechnya where gunmen with bombs strapped to their wastes held around 1,500 people hostage in the gymnasium of a local school since Wednesday.
“More than 200 people died as a result of shooting by the gunmen or from wounds received as a result of explosions set off by the gunmen," a Health Ministry source in North Ossetia was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
President Bush called the siege "another grim reminder of the length to which terrorists will go to threaten this civilized world."
"We mourn the innocent lives that have been lost," Bush said. "We stand with the people of Russia, we send them our prayers for this terrible situation."
Russia media said 860 pupils attended Middle School No.1. Their number may have been swollen to around 1,500 by parents and relatives attending a first-day ceremony traditional in Russian schools.
Terrified children, some naked and others with bloodied faces, ran screaming for safety after the ordeal as machinegun fire rattled out and helicopters clattered overhead.
The children, many stripped to their underwear after two days without food or drink in stifling hot and crowded conditions, gulped down bottles of water and waited in a daze for relatives as gunfire crackled around them.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities said they had been forced into an unplanned rescue operation when the hostage-takers opened fire on fleeing children.
“No military action was planned. We were planning further talks,” said Valery Andreyev, regional head of Russia’s FSB security service.
Andreyev said 10 Arabs had been among about 20 gunmen killed, adding fuel to Russia’s contention that Chechen rebels are backed by foreign Islamic militants.
Some officials suggested an al Qaeda financing link to the gunmen.
The Emergencies Ministry said 704 people, including 259 children, were hospitalized following the commando raid. Many of the wounded were being treated in mobile hospitals set up by authorities.
According to the most recent reports, all resistance had been quelled at the school but the Russian military was still hunting for three gunmen. Amid the chaos, a top official said some children were still being held.