BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 4 -- Hundreds of children, their parents and teachers died in the bloody culmination of a 52-hour siege that began when heavily armed Muslim guerrillas stormed their school Wednesday and ended in an hours-long battle with Russian troops Friday.
The battered, burned and scorched survivors of Beslan's School No. 1, many of them half-naked children, filled the region's hospitals as troops continued to fight through the afternoon with guerrillas holed up inside the school. Twenty-seven of the fighters, described as Chechens, Russians, Ingush and Arabs, were killed, and at least three were captured, officials said.
Only by late Friday did the scale of the bloodshed in this small town in the region of North Ossetia, west of war-torn Chechnya, become clear. A top Russian official admitted what anguished relatives had been saying for days: There had been more than 1,000 hostages inside the school, the majority of them children.
Between 500 and 700 injured former hostages were hospitalized Friday, more than 300 of them children, according to varying official accounts. Hundreds were still unaccounted for, though officials acknowledged early Saturday that the death toll would exceed 250.
The worst carnage, according to escaped hostages and rescuers, came at the start of the pitched battle just after 1 p.m. Friday, when the guerrillas exploded the bombs they had rigged inside the school's cavernous gym. The children had been held there without food or medicine, and scores perished when the gym's roof fell on them.
"The whole floor is covered in bodies," said Alan Karayev, a local sumo wrestler-turned-volunteer who entered the gym to recover the children's remains. "There is no ceiling at all. The roof all fell down on the children."
Their school turned into a battlefield, those hostages who could fled. "Many, many dead. Many dead children," said a young boy who said he had been blown out of a window by an explosion. He was distraught but apparently uninjured, flanked by his wailing grandmother.
President Vladimir Putin, whose only comment during the siege had been a pledge to "save the life and health of those who became hostages," remained silent throughout the long afternoon's battle and into the evening as Russians took stock of the losses. In the middle of the night, he visited Beslan and called the attack "inhuman and cruel." The whole country, he told local leaders, is "feeling your sorrow, thanking you and praying for you."
World leaders, including President Bush, offered condolences as they absorbed what Bush called "another grim reminder" of the brutal tactics used by terrorists.
Russian officials said the battle was started by the guerrillas and denied any intention to launch a rescue attempt, a tactic Putin had ordered two years earlier during a Moscow theater siege that resulted in 129 deaths. "We didn't expect this to happen," said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Putin's top aide for Chechnya, who flew to Beslan on Friday to participate in negotiations that never took place. "What has happened today you know yourselves was started by terrorists."
The siege of School No. 1, attended by 6- to 16-year-olds, began just after 9 a.m. Wednesday when the guerrillas blasted their way into the building at the end of the opening-day assembly. Though Russian officials never confirmed it publicly, the hostage takers demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of prisoners taken after a guerrilla raid this summer in the neighboring region of Ingushetia. They also demonstrated their seriousness by mining the school with explosives and threatening to blow it up if Russian forces moved in on them.
For 52 hours, that didn't happen.
Then came what looked to be progress midday Friday, when the hostage takers agreed to allow Russians to collect several bodies -- how many remains unclear -- of adults killed in the initial shootout. At 1 p.m., four doctors from the Emergency Situations Ministry arrived to do so.
Instead, a battle erupted.