First, two powerful explosions from inside the building rocked Beslan. Soon, scores of hostages started fleeing, some of them dodging gunfire from the guerrillas. "When the children ran, they began to shoot them in their backs," said Putin aide Aslakhanov.
"Bandits opened fired on the escaping children and adults," said Valery Andreyev, regional head of the Federal Security Service. "To save their lives, we retaliated." In the chaos, some of the hostage takers also tried to escape, officials said.
After initial confusion, the Russian attack began. Helicopters roared overhead, special forces stormed the building, tanks swerved into position. Many of Beslan's anxious fathers also ran toward the school, some armed, some not -- intent only on rescuing their children.
Amidst the shooting, many young hostages, most of them barefoot and almost naked after three days in the withering heat of their gym-turned-prison, ran or limped or were carried to safety. Those still standing gulped bottles of water handed to them by rescue workers. "They're killing us," a young girl on a stretcher told a police officer. "They're exploding everything."
At the local House of Culture, where parents had held vigil for three long days, women cried and hugged each other as the sounds of the nearby battle sank in. One of them screamed, "Why? Why?" No one had an answer.
By 2:30, a traffic jam of ambulances crowded outside the school, and civilians turned their Zhigulis and Ladas and BMWs into rescue vehicles, as well. There were nowhere near enough. Many of the injured were bloodied and burned and covered in dirt. A man came out carrying a naked girl, her hair matted, her body streaked with shrapnel cuts, her head lolled back. He laid her on the ground and tried to revive her. When she didn't respond, he started to cry.
The rescue operation was interrupted by a new round of shooting, right near the line of makeshift ambulances. Rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from automatic rifles sent the volunteers retreating a block farther from the school, and it was there that four children's corpses soon appeared, laid out under bloodstained white sheets. Several parents came up and looked under the sheets, searching. Then an old woman in a torn flowered dress was brought out on a stretcher, also dead, and rolled onto the grass next to the four children.
"Are there dead children? Where are the dead children?" a woman shouted as she ran up to inspect the bodies. She was looking for her 12-year-old nephew but did not find him there.
Across the railroad tracks that divide Beslan, the scene at the hospital was bedlam. The courtyard was crowded with rank upon rank of stretchers with injured and dazed children. Hundreds of relatives clamored to inspect the handwritten lists of the wounded.
Through it all, the battle with the remaining guerrillas continued. Some apparently remained inside the school well into the evening -- eight, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Others escaped and fought elsewhere in Beslan with Russian troops. As night fell, the school's gym was still smoldering, its massive windows blown out. The walls inside were pocked with bullet holes and echoed with periodic gunfire and explosions.
Only well after 11 p.m. did Russian officials announce an end to the battle. "Resistance of the terrorists has been fully suppressed," said a statement from the emergency headquarters.
The Kremlin kept tight controls on information during the crisis, failing to give accurate counts of the hostages, confirm the demands made by the hostage takers or describe the identity of the guerrillas.
When the battle began, Russian networks did not broadcast live for more than half an hour. When they went on the air, they avoided reporting any information except from official sources, which later proved inaccurate. Within three hours, all three Russian networks had dropped the story to return to regularly scheduled entertainment programs.
The school seizure capped an already deadly week of terror across Russia blamed on Chechen separatists, with the nearly downing of two airliners and a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station that together claimed 100 lives.
From the start, relatives in Beslan feared mass fatalities, remembering the outcome in previous hostage-takings in Russia, such as the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the takeover of a hospital in 1995. In a sign that Russian authorities were considering a different course, however, government mediators reached out to Chechen separatist leaders for the first time in years to help resolve the crisis.
In the past, Putin has refused to negotiate with the Chechen rebel government-in-exile, led by Aslan Maskhadov, instead calling the separatists terrorists and resisting efforts to hold peace talks.
But just two hours before Friday's battle broke out, the president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, and another politician telephoned Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev in London. Zakayev, who represents Maskhadov, said in an interview that they wanted his assistance "because the demands of the hostage takers were directly related to the situation in Chechnya." He told them he was ready to fly to Beslan and try to "convince these people that through such acts Chechnya will never become independent."
The two mediators thanked him and said they would be back in touch in two hours to talk specifics, a follow-up phone call made moot by the battle.
The guerrillas reportedly represented another Chechen faction and were led by Ingush fighter Magomet Yevloyev, who went by the code name "Magas." Yevloyev allegedly worked in close connection with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, and he was also blamed by Russians for a raid on police posts in Ingushetia this summer that killed more than 90. Estimates on the number of rebels in the school had varied from less than 20 to 40 or more, though when it was over, officials said they had killed 27.
Russian officials have long claimed that Chechen rebels were connected to international Islamic fighters, including al Qaeda. Late Friday, they announced that 10 of the dead guerrillas in the school siege were Arabs, and state television showed video from inside the building showing several dead fighters who appeared to be foreign.
Glasser reported from Moscow. Special correspondent Yulia Solovyova contributed to this report.