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Petals atop the shoes of children

A numb Russia this week observed two days of mourning for the hundreds of victims of the Beslan terrorist attack, while desperate families continued their search for those still missing in this grief-stricken southern region, neighbouring Chechnya.

In Beslan, wailing women crowded around the coffins of children, parents, grandparents and teachers prior to the 120 burials in the town cemetery and adjoining fields. Passing trains sounded their horns in a mark of respect for the dead.

Among the first victims laid to rest were Zinaida Kudziyeva, 42, and her 10-year-old daughter Madina Tomayeva.

Relatives said the two had stood up in a bid to flee their captors when the first explosions were detonated but found themselves in the line of fire between the militants and Russian forces.

Irakly Khosulev, a relative from the nearby city of Vladikavkaz, said:

"They couldn't run away - they didn't have time. Someone should answer for this."

There is growing criticism of the government response to the atrocity, with even Russian state television chiding officials for understating the number of hostages - now acknowledged to be more than 1,100 - as well as for their tardiness in admitting that previous recent attacks were by terrorists.

"At such moments society needs the truth," said Sergei Brilyov, a commentator for the state-run Rossiya television channel.

Two Russian politicians - the liberal Irina Khakamada and nationalist Sergei Glazyev - issued separate calls for an independent investigation into the crisis. Reports have emerged that the attackers planned the seizure of School Number One months ago and smuggled weapons into the buildings in advance.

The three-day siege began after a ceremony to mark the start of the school year. But it ended in carnage when a suicide bomb - one of many such devices hidden in the school - was accidentally triggered in the gym, where hundreds of hostages were being held. The blast prompted security forces to storm the school.

Hostage-takers opened fire on children, parents and teachers who tried to flee, while many others perished in the fire.

The tragedy left few families untouched in this tight-knit, mostly industrial community of 30,000 people. The official death toll stood at 335 on Monday, plus 30 attackers. Among the dead there were 156 children. Some 411 people remained in hospital, 214 of them children.

Despairing families hoped for news of the 200 people who remain unaccounted for. Many of the dead are yet to be identified, some bodies charred beyond recognition. At the school, mourners wandered through the broken glass, collapsed ceilings and puddles of water. Flowers hung from the sills of the gymnasium. Nearby, a blood-stained door lay on its side while children's shoes were scattered among notebooks and textbooks.

Outside, in a book of condolences, a scrawled message read: "Children, forgive us adults."

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