"Exchange us for our children. What are they guilty of?"

Over 300 Russian school children held hostage by armed Chechens.

Published September 2, 2004 3:18PM (EDT)

On a bright, festive opening day of school, the first sign of the brutality to come was a solitary balloon drifting skyward. Diana Kubalova, 14, felt the first trickle of fear when the smaller children in the front row of the school parade let go of their party balloons out of shock.

"At this moment I saw people in masks," she said. "At first I thought it was all part of the celebrations and that these people were a special surprise. Then they began to fire shots in the air. The teachers and parents shouted 'run, run' and we did."

The promise and expectation of the first day of term evaporated in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in southern Russia. Seventeen gunmen, some wrapped in explosives, swept into Middle School 1, running into the school courtyard from the nearby railway station and sparking Russia's most serious domestic crisis since the Dubrovka theatre siege two years ago.

Diana fled. She hid in the boiler room with 14 others, a teacher and a parent who had been attending the ceremony.

"We managed to peek through the crack in the door," she said. "The gunmen were armed with machine guns and my teacher noticed one girl among them wearing a mask. Someone said they were speaking in Chechen."

Amid the disinfectant of newly scrubbed floors and the gleam of whitewashed walls, the attackers filed through the school corridors.

Moments later, Diana heard an Ossetian voice outside the room. "We whispered to him, 'help us get out'. He did, yet as we ran from the boiler room, the [militants] noticed us. Some of us were grabbed by them and were taken off to the sports hall. Now I am here, outside, and they are there."

Inside, scores ofpupils aged from seven to 17 were herded into the school's sports hall along with parents and teachers. One official estimate put the total number held at 336. According to reports, mines were laid about them, and children posted at the windows to prevent sniper fire.

The suicide bombers eventually made their demands clear in incipient negotiations with the authorities: the release of 24 prisoners, fellow militants captured in a recent raid, talks with the presidents of North Ossetia and neighbouring Ingushetia and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya  a demand that no Russian president can meet.

The Kremlin called an emergency sitting of the UN security council in a bid to shore up international support for its inevitable backlash. President George Bush was one of the first to express condolences and solidarity in a message the Kremlin portrayed as support for Russia's own peculiar war on terror.

Earlier in the day, President Vladimir Putin pledged that he would never negotiate with terrorists or even Chechen separatists. But with the bloody end of the Dubrovka theatre siege  in which 129 people were fatally gassed during a Russian assault  still fresh in the popular consciousness, the Kremlin strongman needs to minimise casualties.

Outside the school the reason for a soft approach was clear. Relatives milled around, dumbstruck that a decade of conflict in the nearby republic of Chechnya had crossed the border to wreak such havoc with their families. Two corpses lay near the school building. A sniper on the roof kept doctors away from one girl, who lay wounded in the inner grounds of the building.

Mothers screamed at helpless policemen. One was shown on television saying: "How long can this madness in the country continue? When will it end?"Another wailed: "Exchange us for the children. What are our children guilty of?" Another said: "This was my child's first day at school. He was so happy and told me: 'Mum, I will be a good student'. Please, take me, take me, instead."

The local authorities struggled to retain control of the situation as the day progressed. A brief shootout between police and the hostage takers ended with reportedly seven people dead, including two officers, and a dozen wounded. The gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at an armoured personnel carrier that approached the building.

A videotape was given to police by the militants, according to Oleg Tsagolov, a spokesman for the president of North Os- setia. It was blank. The mobile phone number they gave did not work. The militants refused to accept food for their hostages.

A man answered the school phone, according to the New York Times, and said he was part of a group led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen field commander who has led several chilling, deadly raids into Russia over the past decade.

The gunmen said they would execute 50 hostages for each one of them that was killed, and 20 for each wounded.

The gunmen had entered North Ossetia from neighbouring Ingushetia, Mr Tsagolov said. "They captured a police captain in Koli-Gou, and then came in his car [and a military truck] to Beslan."

He said the policeman escaped and told officials there were 17 militants, many wearing suicide bomber belts, including two women.

One schoolboy, Arsene Dedeyev, 15, told the Russian NTV television channel that a friend had seen the militants "standing far away from school a while ago, looking at it with binoculars".

Anatoli Sikoyev, a parent in his fifties, described from Beslan hospital his lucky escape. "When I heard the news I rushed to school to save my family. I approached the schoolyard and came across a man with a huge beard. He shouted at me: 'lie down and crawl backwards'  Then another man shot at me from a window, hitting my hand and skimming my head."

One policeman, carrying his AK - 47, whose son was inside the school, said: " The life of a child is priceless, and for their lives I will do everything I can. But if Moscow orders an assault, I will kill the person who gives the order."

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