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Russia siege toll tops 350

Putin admits weakness, denounces 'attack on our country'

Saturday, September 4, 2004 Posted: 12:42 PM EDT (1642 GMT)

A worker sifts through the debris in the gymnasium.
more videoVIDEO
Timeline reconstructs what happened as the standoff ended in a hail of gunfire.

Gunfire, chaos as hostages run for safety.
Chechnya (Russia)
Vladimir V. Putin

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 to fight terrorism.

"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 of Beslan.

In addition, 26 hostage-takers -- including 10 people from Arab countries -- and at least 10 Russian special forces were killed. The two-day standoff ended Friday after Russian forces stormed the school amid explosions and intense gunfire.

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.

Dzugayev said most of those who died were killed when a bomb exploded in the school gymnasium where hostages were being held, collapsing the roof and starting a fire.

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

Russian Deputy Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky acknowledged that more than 1,000 people had been held hostage during the ordeal. Earlier, officials had placed the number of hostages at a few hundred.

Putin ordered the borders closed in the North Ossetia region where the siege took place as security forces searched for accomplices in the massacre.

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

The Interfax news agency 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 construction work, Echo Moscow Radio reported.

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

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

"Even alongside the most cruel attacks of the past, this terrorist act occupies a special place because it was aimed at children," news agencies quoted him as saying.

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

"Anyone who feels sympathetic towards such provocations will be viewed as accomplices of terrorists and terrorism," he said.

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

One witness told a reporter that a hostage-taker had set off a suicide bomb in a gymnasium full of children.

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

Valery Andreyev, head of the local branch of the FSB intelligence service, said 10 of the hostage-takers killed were from Arab countries.

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

Near the scene, the bodies of dead children were placed on stretchers. One woman leaned down and caressed the body of a young boy. Other women stood shocked, holding their hands to their mouths and weeping.

These and other images of the siege and its aftermath, aired on television and posted on the Internet, horrified people around the world and brought ringing outcries by international leaders. (Full story)

The hostage incident began Wednesday when an armed gang of terrorists took children, parents and teachers hostage on the first day of school in Beslan.

Friday's storming operation was not planned, said a local official from Russia's FSB intelligence service, who told Russian media the troops had been ready for a long siege.

The forces stormed the building around midday after Russian officials, under a cease-fire agreement with militants, tried to collect bodies lying outside the building.

There was an explosion, hostages fled, and hostage-takers opened fire on the children and rescue workers. One of the workers was killed and another was wounded. Russian troops then opened fire at the rebels, and the battle began.

Chaotic scenes

Several hours later the scene remained in chaos, with pockets of resistance remaining and machine-gun fire heard on the scene and troops going room-by-room as the wounded were being taken out of the building.

Children who survived said they were denied food and water and had to take off their clothes because of the heat. Some boys said they had to drink their own urine because they lacked liquids.

The standoff followed a bloody week in Russia. A female suicide bomber killed nine people outside a Moscow subway station Tuesday. Two suspected Chechen female suicide bombers downed two airliners 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 Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement posted on its Web site, thanked other nations for their support, condemned the incident and said a "moment of truth" had come in the fight against international terror.

"We have witnessed a cruel tragedy, a new, unprecedented form of boundless terrorist lawlessness where bandits victimized innocent women, children, and even completely defenseless infants," the statement said.

"The losses are heavy and irretrievable. Bandits were shooting hostages point-blank and were blowing up everyone indiscriminately.

"One needs to draw a lesson from this monstrous crime. It confirms yet again that terrorists are a bunch of beasts for whom nothing is sacred. They challenge the very foundations of civilization to achieve their criminal goals. Terrorism is absolutely incompatible with principles of morality and humanity," the statement said.

Correspondents Matthew Chance, Ryan Chilcote and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report

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