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Attackers storm Russian school

An armed gang are holding up to 150 pupils hostage after seizing a school in southern Russia, leaving at least two people dead.

Fifteen children have reportedly been released at the secondary school in Beslan, North Ossetia.

At least 17 masked men and women, some wearing explosive belts, stormed the school as more than 200 pupils gathered for the first day of the new term. They are reported to have demanded the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya. They have also threatened to kill 50 children for every one of their group killed by security forces, a regional official said.

"They have said that for every fighter wiped out they will kill 50 children and for every fighter wounded, 20," Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

The incident comes amid heightened security in Russia after a suspected suicide bomb attack in Moscow on Tuesday night and the bombing of two passenger planes last week.

New school term

Wednesday was the first day back for millions of children across Russia and parents also attend what is traditionally a day of celebration. The attackers stormed the secondary school in Beslan at around 0930 local time (0530GMT), shortly after a ceremony welcoming in the new school year.

"We were standing in lines next to the gates. Music was being played," pupil Zaurbek Tsumaratov told RTR Russia TV after managing to escape. "I saw three people running in there with sub-machine guns. At first I simply thought it was a joke. Then they began to fire in the air and we ran away."

More than 200 pupils, parents and teachers were said to have been moved to the school gym. Up to 50 children were able to flee during the move, according to reports.

Russian security forces and police troops were surrounding the building in Beslan, a town 15kms (10 miles) north of Vladikavkaz, capital of the North Ossetia republic, which borders Chechnya. The attackers were believed to have laid mines and trip wires, threatening to blow up the school if stormed by police.

REPORTED DEMANDS

[*]Release of fighters from Ingushetia prisons

[*]Withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya

[*]Negotiations with top regional officials

Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the area. Two civilians were reported to have been killed after being caught in the cross-fire. Itar-Tass said a regional Muslim community leader was brought in to negotiate, but the hostage-takers refused to talk to him saying they would only deal with top officials. Later, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported 15 children had been released.

Putin under pressure

Russian President Vladimir Putin broke off a working holiday on the Black Sea to return to Moscow following the school siege. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Moscow says the president now has a major crisis on his hands, and will be under pressure to bring the stand-off to a peaceful conclusion.

It was not immediately clear who the gunmen are, but correspondents say it bears the hallmarks of Chechen rebels. They have a history of taking hostages to draw international attention to their demands for independence from Russia - the most notorious incident being the Moscow theatre siege in 2002, which left 129 hostages dead.

The latest siege comes a day after a suspected suicide bomb attack at a train station in north Moscow, which killed at least 10 people and injured more than 50. An Islamist group, calling itself the Islambouli Brigades, claimed responsibility and described the attack as "part of the wave of support and assistance to the Muslim Chechens".

[credit: BBC.com]

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