More than a dozen attackers bearing guns and wrapped in suicide-bomb belts seized a school in southern Russia on Wednesday morning and were holding about 400 parents and children hostage as The TES went to press.
Gunfire broke out and at least two civilians were killed, including a father who had brought his child to the school and was shot when he tried to resist the raiders, said Fatima Khabolova, a spokeswoman for the regional parliament. A raider was also killed and 13 people were wounded, including at least three teachers.
It was the first day of the Russian school year and a large number of parents had accompanied their children to class at the school for grades 1-11 in Beslan, North Ossetia, which borders the warring region of Chechnya. As music played after a ceremony marking the start of the school year, the attackers drove up in a covered truck of the type often used for troop transport.
"I was standing near the gates, when I saw three armed people running with guns. At first I thought it was a joke, but then they fired in the air and we fled," a teenage witness, Zarubek Tsumartov, said on Russian television.
More gunfire and several explosions were heard three hours after the raid.
Regional officials told the ITAR-Tass news agency that about 400 people including some 200 children were being held captive. The hostages had been herded into the school gymnasium. Security personnel armed with heavy machine guns ringed the school.
The raiders warned that they would blow up the school if police tried to storm it and were placing children in the windows to deter an attack, police said.
They demanded talks with regional officials and a well-known pediatrician, Leonid Roshal, who had helped hostages during the seizure of a Moscow theatre in 2002. They also demanded the release of fighters detained in connection with a series of attacks on police facilities in neighbouring Ingushetia in June, when more than 90 people were killed.
President Vladimir Putin broke off a working holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and returned to Moscow to hold an immediate meeting with security chiefs.
Russian news reports said that some 50 students managed to escape, some after hiding in the school's boiler room during the raid.