TOPICS > Politics

Commandos Storm a Russian School Where Militants Held Hundreds Hostage

September 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JONATHAN MILLER: 52 hours and 20 minutes after gunmen had first burst into Beslan School, children started bursting out. ( Gunfire ) They were shepherded by Russian special forces towards waiting medics. ( Gunfire ) Some were blood-soaked.

All were badly dehydrated, dazed and half-dressed. It had been unbearably hot in the airless gymnasium. There had been wildly varying estimates of just how many hostages there had been: From the low hundreds to over a thousand. At this stage, it still wasn’t clear, but they’d just kept on coming, traumatized, but alive.

As time went on, those emerging were in worse shape, though. Not all were children. Among the survivors: Teachers, parents. It was chaotic. There weren’t enough ambulances. Injured children were manhandled into private cars. For many, just utter bewilderment. There were many stretcher cases.

It seems some hostages had been shot, which fitted with reports that the violent end of the siege was triggered by an escape bid by a group of young hostages. So did Russian special forces initiate the assault, or were they reacting to something the hostage-takers did?

It’s a critical question given that just hours earlier, President Vladimir Putin had said the safety of the hostages was paramount, and local officials had ruled out the use of force.

There’s a lot of murk about what happened when, but what is known is that the militants in the school had agreed to let Russian forces retrieve the bodies of some of those killed when the gunmen had first stormed the building. The doctors dispatched to collect the bodies entered the compound.

Then this. One young survivor had actually been in the gymnasium and had watched in horror as events unfolded.

YOUNG GIRL ( Translated ): 18 big bombs were hanging right above our heads. One suicide bomber blew herself up, and the other one was pushed by accident.

JONATHAN MILLER: This explains why the gymnasium roof was destroyed and why there were so many burned bodies inside. The reason so much shooting was heard was because it was at this point that special forces decided it was now or never.

VALERY ANDREYEV, Russian Federal Security Service (Translated): I would like to say that we never planned any storming operation. We were planning to continue talks to secure a peaceful release of all the hostages.

JONATHAN MILLER: The way it panned out, it was about as far from peaceful as you get. The battle raged on. Some of the Russian soldiers took casualties. Some of the hostage-takers made a run for it, apparently trying to pass themselves off as hostages.

Others remained holed up in the school, where firefights with Russian soldiers continued. When we slowed down these pictures, you can actually make out two of the gunmen inside the building. Tonight, many families in Beslan are suffering the cruelest form of bereavement: The violent deaths of their children.

But for the survivors, their mothers and fathers, the overwhelming relief of reunion and the slow and painful coming to terms with an experience of unspeakable horror.