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Russians storm school


BESLAN, Russia (CNN) -- More than 100 bodies have been found in a Russian school gym after troops stormed the building in a bid to end a terrifying hostage crisis, news agencies reported.

Russia's Interfax reported the toll Friday, citing its own correspondent. The figured matched an earlier report from Britain's ITV, which said its cameraman had managed to look inside the gym.

Interfax said dozens of people were killed when the roof collapsed at the school. Itar-Tass said more than 400 hostages and local residents had been injured and taken to hospitals.

An earlier report said 10 dead were taken from the scene. One local official said earlier that "most" of the hostages had survived.

Russian officials confirmed that dead bodies had been found at the scene, Itar-Tass said.

Interfax said 10 of the hostage-takers were killed in the standoff at the school in North Ossetia, near Chechnya.

Rebels in Chechnya have been fighting Russian forces and demanding independence for that small republic.

Hostage-takers and their captives fled in a scene of chaos amid explosions and gunfire as commandos stormed the building. Itar-Tass said soldiers blew a hole in the building to help hostages escape.

Russian special forces stormed the school after the hostage-takers opened fire as troops tried to remove bodies of those killed when the siege began two days ago.

Fighting was continuing on the school grounds.

An Interior Ministry official said troops seized the gym where hostages were held but that militants may be holding hostages in other buildings.

Some hostage-takers were still holed up in a building, according to one report, but special forces were not able to go in after them because the area was mined.

Russian commandos were pursuing the hostage-takers who fled. One media report said 13 militants had managed to escape.

There was another report that troops surrounded a residence where several militants were thought to have taken refuge.

There was also a report of two women terrorists dressed in white who were trying to flee and blend into the population.

Structures were said to be ablaze near the school. Huge explosions could be heard and plumes of smoke seen near the school. Small arms fire crackled.

The explosions could have resulted from mines and booby-traps planted near the school by militants, experts say.

Interfax quoted a defense official saying that "the terrorists planted a lot of mines and booby-traps filled with metal bolts in the gym."

Casualty figures trickled over the news wires but could not be confirmed. However, images were broadcast of dead and wounded people, as well as scores of survivors running from the school.

Friday's developments came as dozens of captives escaped amid sporadic explosions and small-arms fire that lasted more than an hour. Russian helicopters circled overhead but were never seen to open fire.

Scenes of the chaotic, chilling events unfolded on television.

Half-naked children dashed out of the school in every direction. Some were carried and helped by parents and adults. Many were bleeding. Others screamed. Many received medical treatment and food and water outside.

Paramedics pulled children out in stretchers and put them into cars and ambulances. Some were bandaged and badly injured; others were just simply distraught and relieved to be free.

Anxious adults milled around an area near the school where Russian soldiers were stationed.

The standoff began when the armed attackers raided the school on the first day of classes Wednesday. It lasted for well over 40 hours.

The attackers had been holding more than 350 children, parents and teachers hostage, although relatives and at lease one freed hostage put the number closer to 1,000.

During the ordeal, the terrorists did not allow water and food into the building.

One unidentified woman freed on Thursday told Izvestia newspaper that during the night children began to cry.

"Then the fighters would fire in the air to restore quiet. In the morning they told us they would not give us anything more to drink because the authorities were not ready to negotiate.

"When children went to the toilet, some tried to drink from the tap. The fighters stopped them straight away."

The crisis follows a bloody week in Russia.

A female suicide bomber killed nine people outside a Moscow subway station on Tuesday. Two suspected Chechen female suicide bombers downed two jetliners on August 24, killing all 89 people aboard the planes.

Russian officials have said the new wave of attacks is an attempt at revenge for last weekend's elections in Chechnya in which a Kremlin-backed candidate won the presidency.

The crisis is reminiscent of the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, when Chechen rebels threatened to kill some 700 hostages and demanded an end to the war in Chechnya.

Many of those attackers were women, with explosives belts strapped to their body, while the men were armed with pistols and rifles. Two massive bombs also had been placed in the theater.

That standoff ended when Russian forces piped poison gas into the theater to knock out everyone inside, but more than 120 hostages and 41 attackers were killed, most of them from the gas.
 
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