BESLAN, Russia Armed militants with explosives strapped to their bodies stormed a Russian school in a region bordering Chechnya on Wednesday, corralling hundreds of hostages many of them children into a gymnasium and threatening to blow up the building if surrounding Russian troops attacked.
Casualty reports varied widely. At least two people were confirmed killed, including a school parent, but an official in the command operation said on condition of anonymity early Thursday that 16 people were killed 12 inside the school, two who died in a hospital and two others whose bodies still lay outside and could not be removed because of gunfire. The official said 13 were wounded.
Camouflage-clad special forces carrying assault rifles encircled Middle School No. 1 in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Earlier, a little girl in a flowered dress fled the school holding a soldier's hand; officials said about a dozen other people managed to escape by hiding in a boiler room.
A militant sniper took position on a top floor of the three-story school, and hours into the standoff Russian security officials used a phone number they were given and began negotiations with the hostage-takers widely believed linked to Chechen rebels suspected in a string of deadly attacks that appeared connected with last Sunday's presidential election in the war-ravaged republic.
More than 1,000 people, including many distraught parents, crowded outside police cordons demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.
"I've been here all day, waiting for anything," said Svetlana Tskayeva, whose grown daughter and three grandchildren aged 10, 6 and six months were among the captives. "They're not telling us anything. ..."It's awful, it's frightening."
The hostage-taking came less than 24 hours after a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station that killed at least nine people, and just over a week after near-simultaneous explosions blamed on terrorism
caused two Russian planes to crash, killing all 90 people on board.
With violence spreading across the country, many Russians worry about their safety. Official talk of increasing security after terrorist attacks is dismissed by many, and while tight measures were put in place in North Ossetia after the hostage crisis, few signs of major changes have been visible elsewhere.
The recent bloodshed is a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who pledged five years ago to crush Chechnya's rebels but instead has seen the insurgents increasingly strike civilian targets beyond the republic's borders.
"In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters before the hostage-taking.
Putin for the second time in a week interrupted his working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and returned to Moscow to deal with the unfolding crisis.
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 no request had been made so far, the White House said.
After an emergency session called for by Russia, the United Nations Security Council condemned "the heinous terrorist act" and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.
From inside the school, the militants sent out a list of demands and threatened that if police intervened, they would kill 50 children for every hostage-taker killed and 20 children for every hostage-taker injured, Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the North Ossetia region's Interior Ministry, was quoted as telling the ITAR-Tass news agency.
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