Russian school seized by militants

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BESLAN, Russia (AP) – Militants wearing suicide-bomb belts seized a southern Russian school in a region bordering Chechnya on Wednesday, taking hundreds of hostages – many of them children – and threatening to blow up the building if police storm it. As least four people have been reported killed, including a school parent.

Hours into the desperate standoff, security officials said they had made brief contact with the hostage-takers. Russian special forces wearing camouflage and carrying heavy-caliber machine guns surrounded Middle School No. 1. About 1,000 people, mostly parents, were massed the three-story building in the town of Beslan, demanding information and accusing the government of failing to protect their children.

Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the North Ossetia region’s Interior Ministry, said that the hostages have threatened “for every destroyed fighter, they will kill 50 children and for every injured fighter – 20 (children),” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

At one point, a girl wearing a floral print dress and a red bow in her hair fled the school, her hand held by a flak-jacketed soldier. An older woman followed them. Ruslan Ayamov, spokesman for North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry told The Associated Press that 12 children and one adult managed to escape after hiding in the building’s boiler room.

Later Wednesday, Russia called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. State Department, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the head of the U.N. children’s agency demanded the immediate release of the captives.

The Security Council, which normally does not meet on the first day of the month when a new president takes over, scheduled consultations at 5 p.m. EDT on the school seizure and several other issues.

The attack was the latest blamed on secessionist Chechen rebels, coming a day after a suicide bomber killed nine people in Moscow and a week after near-simultaneous explosions blamed on terrorists caused two Russian planes to crash, killing all 90 people on board. The surge in violence was apparently timed around last Sunday’s Chechen presidential election.

“In essence, war has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said.

President Vladimir Putin interrupted his working holiday Wednesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a second time and returned to the capital. On arrival at the airport, he held an immediate meeting with the heads of Russia’s Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, the Interfax news agency said.

The standoff began after a ceremony marking the first day of the Russian school year, when it was likely that many parents had accompanied their children. About 17 militants, men and women, stormed the three-story building and herded captives into the gymnasium. They forced children to stand at the windows and warned they would blow up the school if police intervened, said Alexei Polyansky, a police spokesman for southern Russia.

“I was standing near the gates, music was playing, when I saw three armed people running with guns. At first I though it was a joke when they fired in the air and we fled,” a teenager, Zarubek Tsumartov, said on Russian television.

Hours after the seizure, Regional Federal Security Service chief Valery Andreyev said on NTV television that negotiations with the hostage-takers “are just, just beginning” and that brief contact had not allowed authorities to evaluate the situation in Beslan, located 10 miles north of the regional capital of Vladikavkaz.