Author`s name Pravda.Ru

Gunmen were demanding an independent Chechnya

Russian troops stormed a school in the country's south, after hostages started fleeing the building where armed terrorists had been holding as many as 1,500 people captive for two days in Beslan, North Ossetia.

More than 200 wounded were taken to hospitals, Interfax said, citing Lev Dzugayev, spokesman for North Ossetia's government. Russian broadcasters NTV and Rossiya showed children escaping and gunfire and explosions could be heard during the broadcasts.

Russian forces haven't taken the area fully under control and gunfire can be heard coming from near the gym where the hostages were held, Sky News reported from the scene. Interfax earlier reported that the area was almost under control.

"Most of the children who had been taken hostage are still alive," NTV television reported from the scene. "There are very many wounded."

Russian soldiers opened fire at terrorists who tried to flee among the hostages, state-owned Itar-Tass said. Tank fire was heard near a house where some of the terrorists were holed up after fleeing the school, Interfax reported. The building was surrounded by Russian forces, the news service said.

At least one hostage-taker was captured and five killed, Itar- Tass reported.

According to Scotsman a hostage released from a Russian school said there were at least 1500 people being held there by armed militants.

Russian officials had said that about 350 people were being held by raiders who seized the school in the North Ossetian city of Beslan on Wednesday.

But a teacher who was among at least 26 women and children released yesterday said: "On television they say that there are 350 of us. That’s not right. There’s not less than 1500 in the school."

Local legislator Azamat Kadykov told a meeting packed with worried relatives and friends that the number of hostages was "more or less 1000".

The statements were a new blow to the morale of hostage relatives, who spent the night wracked by hope and dread - buoyed by the release of dozens of women and children but alarmed by grenades fired from the building.

Valery Andreyev, chief of the regional office of the Federal Security Service, said that contacts with the hostage-takers had resumed in the morning, following an overnight suspension, but stopped again.

A Reuters correspondent saw three armored personnel carriers carry heavily armed soldiers toward the school. He also saw soldiers commandeering civilian cars, apparently to transport the wounded.

Tass said troops had blown a hole in a wall to let hostages escape. It said rebels had escaped and were fleeing the town.

Officials had said some 500 people were being held in the school in North Ossetia, near Chechnya, but released hostages said the number could be nearer to 1,500 people lying on top of one another in increasingly desperate conditions.

Children, some half- or fully naked, gulped from bottles of water after two days without drink in a stiflingly hot and crowded school. Some lay on stretchers.

Alexander Dzasokhov, president of the province of North Ossetia, said the 40 or so masked gunmen were demanding an independent Chechnya, the first clear link between them and the decade-long separatist rebellion in the neighboring province.

But he tried to reassure hundreds of fraught parents who spent the night near the school in the town of Beslan, telling reporters: "I tell you frankly and honestly ... the option of force is not being considered," informs Reuters.

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