BESLAN, Russia – More than 200 people were dead after a three-day-long hostage standoff at a school in southern Russia (search), officials said Friday.
Regional health officials told the Interfax news agency the death toll had topped 200. Earlier in the day officials had warned that the number could exceed 150.
The terrorists who besieged the school on Wednesday finally ceased fighting with security forces on Friday. The hostage takers, who had been demanding independence for Chechnya (search), had been trading fire from the school basement and a nearby house after Russian commandos stormed the building. After about 12 hours, the Russian government said resistance had ended, though four others were still being sought. There were also reports that three arrests.
Emergency Situations Ministry officials said 704 people were hospitalized, including 259 children. Many were badly burned.
Officials said security forces had not planned to assault the school, where the militants had been holding hostages — up to 1,500 of them, according to one freed captive — in the gymnasium since Wednesday morning. But the troops' hand was forced when the militants set off explosions and began shooting Friday afternoon, officials said.
Some of the hostages were wounded or killed when terrorists fired on those who were fleeing and Russian forces fired back.
Several of the hostage-takers fled following the raid. Many may have changed out of their militants gear into civilian clothing, further complicating Russian forces' efforts to hunt them down.
Troops were engaged in "fierce fighting" for hours with militants, who still held some hostages, said Valery Andreyev, the regional Federal Security Service chief. Three militants reportedly barricaded themselves in the basement.
Soon after nightfall, a large explosion issued from the school, and officials at the crisis operations center said later that resistance was over. They said four militants remained at large, but it was not clear if they held any more hostages. Channel One TV reported three militants were arrested after trying to escape in civilian dress.
Officials at the crisis headquarters said 95 victims have been identified so far. Health Ministry officials said the total death toll was more than 200, the Interfax news agency reported.
Officials also told FOX News that 10 of the 20 terrorists killed by Russian soldiers were "Arab mercenaries."
Jihadists from the Middle East have joined the Chechen uprising since it began after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but their numbers have always been small, according to Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Moscow Center (search). Chechen fighters, who come from a less restrictive Muslim tradition, have also tended to chafe under the Arab fighters' extremism.
The hostage-taking was an unprecedented event in the region, according to a FOX News military analyst.
"The is a whole new escalation," said Air Force Lieutenant General (Ret.) Tom McInerney.
McInerney cautioned against criticizing Russia's security forces for their handling of the standoff.
"You can't do a pinpoint strike. We have never seen such a large number of hostages taken by terrorists [in this region] before."
McInerney also said Washington had reason for alarm. "The question is whether it's going to roll West into Europe and into our own country," he said.
Commandos had stormed the Beslan school earlier Friday and battled terrorists holding hundreds of hostages as crying children — some naked and covered in blood — fled through explosions and gunfire.
The captives were taken by heavily armed terrorists who were making a series of demands involving the war-torn region of Chechnya, including a request that Russian troops leave the area.
A hostage who escaped told Associated Press Television News that the militants numbered 28, including women wearing camouflage uniforms. The hostage, who identified himself only as Teimuraz, said the militants began wiring the school with explosives as soon as they took control.
The hostage standoff began when the terrorists, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, stormed the school Wednesday morning.
The terrorists kept the hostages in a sweltering gymnasium, refusing to let in food or water.
"They didn't let me go to the toilet for three days, not once. They never let me drink or go to the toilet," Teimuraz told APTN.
The children who were rescued drank eagerly from bottles of water given to them once they reached safety. Many of the children were only partly clothed because of the stifling heat in the gymnasium.
"I am helping you," a man dressed in camouflage told a crying girl. Women gathered around, trying to soothe her, saying "It's all right. It's all right."
About a dozen hostage-takers escaped, with the Interfax new agency reporting that they split into three groups to blend in with the hostages and took refuge in a home nearby. Tank fire was heard from the area of the house, Interfax said, and gunfire rang out through the town for hours.
The White House branded the hostage-taking "barbaric" and "despicable," and said responsibility for dozens of lost lives rests with the terrorists.
"The United States stands side by side with Russia in our global fight against terrorism," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
President Bush was briefed on developments in Russia Friday morning before a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. He did not talk about the standoff during his speech.
Who Are the Terrorists?
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking at the Beslan (search) school, but Alexander Dzasokhov — the president of the North Ossetia (search) region, where the school is located — said the terrorists had demanded independence for the nearby war-torn region of Chechnya. It was the first official word connecting the hostage-taking to Russia's conflict with the mostly Muslim region.
Insurgents fought an earlier war for Chechen independence, a conflict that ended in stalemate. In the years since, the rebels and their sympathizers have increasingly taken to assaults and attacks outside the tiny republic.
Some Arab fighters have joined the Chechen militants, including rebel commander Abu Walid, a zealously Muslim Saudi-born warrior, and Omar Ibn al-Khattab — now dead — another Saudi-born militant who joined top rebel warlord Shamil Basayev in 1999 raids in Dagestan that helped prompt the current Chechen war.
Their participation has bolstered President Vladimir Putin's case that Russia's campaign in Chechnya is part of a war on international terrorism.
Putin said Tuesday that the claim, while unconfirmed, was the latest demonstration of links between Chechen militants and international terrorists.
"If a terrorist organization claimed responsibility for this, and it is linked to Al Qaeda, then this confirms a link between certain forces operating on the territory of Chechnya and international terrorism," he said.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there isn't evidence that Al Qaeda is involved, but the Chechen rebels have been linked to the Muslim extremist group in the past and the new interest in aviation and increasing sophistication of attacks gives reason to be suspicious.
"It can't be ruled out, but there isn't any evidence of connections," the official said.
Homicide bombers are a new phenomenon for Russia, but hostage-taking raids have been part of the militant strategy since shortly after Russian forces rolled into the region in 1994 in a bid to crush the separatist government of Dzhokhar Dudayev.
In the last two weeks Russia has been hit with a series of deadly attacks.
A suspected Chechen homicide bomber blew herself up Tuesday outside a Moscow subway station, killing nine people and wounding dozens. She was believed to have been one of the region's "black widows" — Chechen female homicide bombers who have caused carnage in Russia to avenge husbands or male relatives lost in the deadly conflict.
And just over a week ago, 90 people died in two plane crashes that are suspected to have been blown up by bombers also linked to Chechnya. Each plane carried one woman passenger who purchased her ticket under a Chechen name and was never identified or claimed by relatives.
Two major hostage-taking raids by Chechen rebels outside the region in the past decade prompted forceful Russian rescue operations that led to many deaths. The most recent, the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, ended after a knockout gas was pumped into the building, debilitating the captors but causing almost all of the 129 hostage deaths.
Lev Dzugayev, a North Ossetian official, said the attackers might be from Chechnya or Ingushetia. Law enforcement sources in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers were believed to include Chechens, Ingush, Russians and a North Ossetian suspected of participating in the Ingushetia violence.
"They are very cruel people, we are facing a ruthless enemy," said Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician involved in the negotiations. "I talked with them many times on my cell phone, but every time I ask to give food, water and medicine to the hostages they refuse my request."
FOX News' Dana Lewis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.