09/03/2004, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Ossetia: battle erupts at school, hostages and gunmen flee

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) -  On Friday, Russian commandos stormed a school in Beslan (North Ossetia) where hundreds of hostages were being held. According to news reports they established complete control of the building. The action followed a series of loud explosions after which dozens of hostages, including naked children, fled the building. Russian news agencies report that the commandos blow a hole in a wall of the school to help the hostages escape. Other reports say that some gunmen blew themselves up.

A large number of people were seen fleeing the compound, many covered in blood.  The hostage takers apparently tried to escape from the school building bringing some of the hostages as soldiers fired on them.  There was no immediate word on casualties in the chaotic situation, which came on the third day of the crisis. But regional officials said that about 200 hostages were wounded. Women escaping the building were seen fainting; others, some covered in blood, were carried away on stretchers.

After the explosions, heavy gunfire broke out from both sides with helicopters hovering over the area.

Apparently, several hundred hostages remained in the building as the gun fire raged.

There were conflicting figures as to how many hostages were in the school, ranging from 350 to more than 1,000. However, at least half of the hostages were said to be children, including infants.

The armed group holding the hostages was earlier reported to have demanded independence for neighbouring Chechnya.  While heavy gunfire continued inside the school, some gunmen were able to escape fleeing the  town towards south.
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