Gunfire blasted during and immediately after the seizure. At least eight people have been killed, including one father who tried to resist the insurgents, the AP reported.
An estimated 17 male and female guerillas attacked Middle School No. 1 in the town of Beslan in the republic of North Osseia, not far from Chechnya, just after opening ceremonies for the start of a new school year. The large celebration draws parents, teachers and students to the school for its first day.
The exact number of hostages remains unclear — estimates ranged from 132 to nearly 400 –reflecting the confusion surrounding the situation.
“I was standing near the gates, music was playing, when I saw three armed people running with guns. At first I thought it was a joke when they fired in the air and we fled,” Zarubek Tsumartov, a Russian teenager said on Russian television, according to the AP.
The insurgents threatened to blow up the school if police tried to take it by force. Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the region’s Interior Ministry, said the hostages have threatened “for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter — 20,” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Russian soldiers carrying machine guns surround the perimeter of the school, as well as roughly 1,000 onlookers, many of them parents, demanding information and blaming the government for not protecting their children.
The insurgents released one hostage with a list of demands, including the release of fighters held since June attacks on police facilities in near-by Ingushetia, ITAR-Tass reported.
The fighters also want talks with leaders of North Ossetia and a doctor who participated in negotiations when insurgents seized a Moscow theater in October 2002, the New York Times reported.
President Vladimir Putin returned from his vacation for the second time in eight days and held an immediate meeting with the heads of Russia’s Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, the AP reported.
Putin has told reporters recently that he would not negotiate with terrorists or separatists in Chechnya, who have been fighting Russian forces since 1994.
“We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons and destroy them,” Putin said, according to the New York Times.
But officials in North Ossestia said they were trying to open talks with the guerrillas in an effort to save the hundreds of children and civilians inside the school.
The attack comes a day after a suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a subway station in Moscow and a week after two planes exploded at the same time, causing the airliners to crash and killing all 90 people on board.
A militant Muslim web site claimed responsibility for the bombing on behalf of the “Islambouli Brigades,” and the same group took responsibility for the airline bombings.
Over 600 people have died in terrorist attacks in Russia over the past two years. The majority of the attacks are related to the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, a traditionally Sunni Muslim region where Russian troops continue to battle guerillas fighting for independence.