MOSCOW – A band of militants, some with suicide bomb belts, seized a school Wednesday in southern Russia and held hostage hundreds of children, parents and teachers in a dramatic escalation of terrorist violence that has swept the country in the past eight days.

About 17 men and women raided a school in the village of Beslan, 25 miles from the border of war-ravaged Chechnya, moments after parents and children gathered in the school’s courtyard on the first day of classes.

The militants placed trip-wired bombs throughout the school and threatened to detonate the explosives if Russian authorities tried to storm the building, according to reports. Russian news agencies reported 300 people were being held inside. Some news accounts placed the number of children being held hostage at 200.

Members of Russian special forces units surrounded the three-story building in a standoff that lasted into the night. At least four people were dead as of Wednesday evening, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, including a student’s father who resisted the militants. At least four people were wounded.

The hostage-takers appeared to be linked to Chechen separatists embroiled in a war for independence from Russia for the past decade. Russia’s First Channel television network reported that one of the militants spoke with The New York Times by telephone and described the hostage-takers as members of the Second Group of Salakhin Riadus Shahidi, a group linked to separatist warlord Shamil Basayev.

Russian authorities have accused Basayev of amassing a group of suicide fighters and deploying them in Moscow, Chechnya and the mountainous republics that surround the province. Many of Basayev’s recruits are women whose husbands or brothers were killed in the Chechen conflict.

Last year, the U.S. government included three militant groups founded by Basayev, including the Salakhin Riadus Shahidi group, on its blacklist of international terrorist organizations.

The militants who took the school Wednesday demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Chechnya and free separatist fighters captured during a guerrilla raid on security forces in a neighboring province, Ingushetia, in June, said Aslambek Aslakhanov, a Kremlin adviser on Chechen issues.

Wednesday’s hostage-taking was reminiscent of the Oct. 23, 2002, takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen separatist guerrillas. The militants, some of whom were women wearing suicide bomb belts, were killed when Russian elite security forces raided the theater. A gas used to immobilize the hostage-takers killed 127 of the 129 hostages who died during the siege and rescue attempt.

In the siege in Beslan, militants first commandeered a police car and a Russian army truck and then drove into the courtyard of School No. 1, Interfax quoted Russian security officials as saying. Armed with grenades and automatic rifles, the militants herded children, parents and teachers into the school’s gymnasium. Some children were briefly positioned at windows and used as human shields, Russian officials said. Several students hid in the school’s boiler room and later fled to safety.

“We were celebrating the first day of school when suddenly I saw three people armed with machine guns entering the courtyard,” student Zaurbek Tsumartov told Russia’s NTV television network. “At first I thought it was a joke, but then they started shooting in the air. I ran away.”

Russian officials said they established contact with the hostage-takers by early Wednesday evening, but they did not disclose details of the negotiations.

President Bush called Putin and “condemned the taking of hostages and the other terrorists attacks in Russia,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. Bush offered “assistance” to Russia in dealing with the crisis if requested, but that no request had been made so far, The Associated Press reported.

At the United Nations, Russia called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council, which scheduled consultations for later Wednesday on the school seizure and other issues, AP reported.

The hostage crisis at the school, which is in the southern Russian province of North Ossetia, was the latest in a series of terrorist acts that have rocked Russia over the past eight days and are believed to be linked to Chechen separatists.

On Aug. 24, two Russian airliners crashed almost simultaneously after taking off from Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, killing 90. Investigators believe suicide bombers brought down the jets and are focusing on two Chechen women who bought last-minute tickets on the flights.

On Tuesday, a female suicide bomber detonated a belt packed with explosives and metal bolts amid a crowd outside Moscow’s Rizhskaya subway station, killing 10 people and wounding 50.

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“In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in televised remarks made before the hostage crisis at the school.

Russian President Vladimir Putin broke away from a working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to return to Moscow, as he did after the downings of the airliners last week. The Kremlin had not made any statement on the hostage-taking as of Wednesday evening.

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Russia’s United Nations representative, Andrei Denisov, was expected to ask the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to discuss a “coordinated response” to the dramatic rise in terrorist activity in recent days, according to a statement posted on Russia’s Foreign Ministry Web site.

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President Bush called Putin and said the United States is prepared to help, the Kremlin said, adding that Bush emphasized that Washington and Moscow are fighting international terrorism together.

The recent violence coincides with the election Sunday of Alu Alkhanov as Chechnya’s president. Alkhanov succeeds Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a May bomb blast blamed on Chechen separatists. The elections of Kadyrov and Alkhanov were widely criticized as engineered by Moscow to ensure that the Kremlin’s candidate won.

“The individuals who have been elected in these bogus elections in Chechnya don’t enjoy real political legitimacy,” Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation, a human-rights group, said at a news conference Wednesday. “The result is that those who choose violence have a stronger argument.”

Vitaly Naumkin, an analyst with the Arabic Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he believed the election of Alkhanov could have “acted as the trigger” for the renewed violence. “It’s not by chance that it coincided with the Chechen election.”

In recent days, Putin has defended Alkhanov’s election as a legitimate expression of Chechnya’s political will. Meeting with Turkish journalists in Sochi on Tuesday, Putin made it clear that any dialogue with Chechen separatists is out of the question.

“We shall fight against them,” Putin said, “throw them in prisons and destroy them.”



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040901 Ossetia school, 20040901 Russia terror

AP-NY-09-01-04 2059EDT



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