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New York Times: Soldiers storm Russian school, fate of hostages is unclear

Russian forces on Friday stormed a school here where heavily armed fighters held hundreds of children, parents and teachers after two large explosions rocked the building on Friday afternoon, provoking fierce gunbattles as frightened and wounded hostages streamed out.

The assault did not appear to be planned, but rather began with scattered fire that quickly erupted to a crescendo, punctuated by more blasts. Dozens of hostages -- many barely dressed, their faces strained with fear and exhaustion - survived the assault, but others emerged bloodied and in shock. The fate of the majority inside - now believed to be as many as 1,000 - was not immediately known.

Preliminary reports said that more than 150 children were already taken to hospitals. Others said that at least some of the hostage takers died. There were no immediate reports of deaths inside the school, but from the scene and from television images, it appeared certain that the death toll would be high.

As the fighting erupted, dozens of ambulances and other cars ferried wounded children and adults. In one there was a teenage girl, her black hair matted to her bloody face, her mouth open, apparently gravely wounded.

By 2 p.m. local time, officials announced that commandoes had entered the school, but the fighting continued as at least some of the hostage takers sought to escape into the neighborhoods of Beslan. At least some occupied a nearby house, officials said. Sporadic shooting broke out hundreds of feet from school, as helicopters circled overhead. Half an hour later two tanks cranked their engines and headed toward the school, almost immediately firing heavy shells.

There were reports that part of the two-story schoolhouse had collapsed, but it was not immediately clear whether the guerillas inside had carried out their threat to detonate explosions and destroy the building.

As the battle began hundreds of relatives standing at the security cordon around the school began to scream and sob with despair, only to regain hope as children emerged alive. Two girls emerged from the back seat of a car, their clothes tattered and stained with dried blood, and raced into their family's courtyard near the school, where they met and hugged a woman who appeared to be their mother.

The violent end to the siege came only hours after Aleksandr S. Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, told hundreds of relatives that the use force was not being considered but that patience was running out. He said that the authorities had turned to Chechnya's separatist leaders to help negotiate a peaceful end to a crisis that has stunned Russia.

Mr. Dzasokhov, meeting with relatives in a social center that would soon reverberated with nearby gunfire and explosions, said he had orders to open a channel to Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist leader who served as Chechnya's president until fleeing invading Russian forces in 1999.

Mr. Dzasokhov and Ruslan Aushev, the regional political leader who negotiated the release of 26 women and children on Thursday, both called Mr. Maskhadov's chief representative abroad, Akhmed Zakayev on Thursday evening and again on Friday morning. That reversed the Kremlin's policy never to negotiate with men that President Vladimir V. Putin denounces as terrorists.

Mr. Zakayev, who lives in exile in London and is wanted by the Russians on a series of criminal charges that he calls politically motivated, said in a telephone interview that he and Mr. Maskhadov were prepared to assist.

"I assured them that President Maskhadov was as distraught as they were," Mr. Zakayev said only minutes before chaos fell on this city. "He is ready without any conditions to make all efforts to save these children and resolve this crisis."

The contacts with Chechnya's separatist leaders - the first since a fleeting meeting between Mr. Zakayev and a Russian negotiator at a Moscow airport in Nov. 2001 - underscored the evident desperation facing Mr. Putin as heavily armed fighters threatened to kill their hostages, many of them schoolchildren. Even as the siege began on Wednesday morning, Mr. Putin reiterated his vow never to negotiate with terrorists or separatists from Chechnya.

The nascent entreaty, obviously, came too late.

C. J. CHIVERS and STEVEN LEE MYERS

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