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Saturday, September 04, 2004 - Death toll in Russia school siege tops 350 - Sep 4, 2004 - Death toll in Russia school siege tops 350 - Sep 4, 2004

Death toll in Russia school siege tops 350
Putin denounces 'attack on our country'

BESLAN, Russia (CNN) -- The death toll in the Russian hostage crisis has climbed beyond 350 as President Vladimir Putin denounced the massacre as "an attack on our country."

In a nationally televised speech Saturday, Putin said the fall of the Soviet Union had left the country unable to react to attacks, and he urged Russians to join together.

"We must create a much more effective system of security," he said. "We couldn't adequately react. ... We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten." (Full story).

North Ossetia government spokesman Lev Dzugayev told CNN that 323 hostages, including 156 children, died in the siege in the southern town.

In addition, 26 hostage-takers -- including 10 people from Arab countries -- and at least 10 Russian Special Forces troops died.

Chechens have been affiliated with the al Qaeda terror network, and an Arab connection suggests a further link between the Chechen rebel movement and international terrorism. Chechen rebels have been fighting Russian troops for a decade, seeking independence.

More than 700 people were wounded, officials said.

Dzugayev said Saturday evening that 448 people were still in hospitals in the region, including 248 children. Among the total hospitalized, 69 were in serious condition.

Most of the dead were killed when a bomb exploded in the gymnasium, Dzugayev said.

Of those who died from gunshot wounds, most were shot in the back as they fled the gymnasium, he said.

Security forces are still combing the region for hostage-takers who escaped.

Putin traveled to the traumatized region near Chechnya early Saturday, visiting hospitals and meeting local officials.

"Russia is grieving with the people of North Ossetia," he said in Beslan. "Nobody wanted to use force."

"One of the tasks pursued by the terrorists was to stoke ethnic hatred, to blow up the whole of our North Caucasus."

At least 79 bodies have been identified, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Many bodies were burned beyond recognition and will require DNA testing for identification.

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

Investigators are looking at the possibility that the hostage-takers may have brought their weapons and explosives into the school well before the siege.

Interfax quoted an unnamed regional security officer as saying the weapons had been hidden under the floor during summer construction work.

An escaped hostage said she recognized some of the terrorists as having done the construction work, Echo Moscow Radio reported.

The images of the aftermath, broadcast on television and posted on the Internet, horrified people around the world and brought ringing outcries by international leaders. (Full story)


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