PARIS – World leaders expressed horror over the bloody hostage crisis at a school in southern Russia on Friday, saying the attack on schoolchildren showed terrorists have sunk to new lows. Some experts warned that Russia's Chechnya conflict (search ) was becoming the next crossroads of international terrorism.
"The series of escalating attacks in Russia this month leaves no doubt that the conflict in Chechnya is a matter of international, not merely internal, security," said Celeste Walander, director of CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program (search ) in Washington, D.C.
Messages of solidarity and shock poured in from capitals worldwide as a three-day standoff at a school turned into a gunfight between Russian commandos and Chechen militants holding hundreds of hostages. An official said the death toll could be far more than 150.
The bodies of children killed in the fighting were lined up in and around the school in the town of Beslan, in the southern republic of North Ossetia (search ), near Chechnya. Wounded children, some naked and bloody, were carried from the scene to a makeshift hospital.
"We have been confronted with a deep human tragedy," said Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, speaking on behalf of the European Union (search ). "This shows once again that we have to do everything in our power to confront terrorism."
Many decried the violence as heinous new territory for terrorists.
"This is a new dimension of terrorism," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
"There are no reasons imaginable that could justify taking children, toddlers, babies and their mothers hostages," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
President Bush called the siege "another grim reminder of the length to which terrorists will go to threaten this civilized world."
"We mourn the innocent lives that have been lost," Bush said. "we stand with the people of Russia, we send them our prayers for this terrible situation."
France, caught in a hostage drama of its own with two French journalists held in Iraq, called for "everyone to mobilize in the fight against terrorism."
The statement from the Foreign Ministry added that France was ready to respond to any Russian requests for help.
Among 20 militants killed Friday, there were 10 Arabs, said Valery Andreyev, Russia's Federal Security Service chief in North Ossetia.
The presence of Arabs would lend greater credence to Putin's contention that Al Qaeda terrorists were involved in the Chechen conflict, where Muslim fighters have battled Russian forces in a brutal a war of independence for most of the past decade.
Putin has long tried to paint the Chechen conflict as part of the global war on terror. Some countries, particularly in Europe, have been critical of Russia's handling of the conflict in the republic, where Russian forces have been accused of human rights abuses.
The European Union directed veiled criticism at Russia's handling of the crisis, saying it regretted the violence and bloodshed.
"It's very difficult to judge from a distance whether the right decision was taken or not," said Bot, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency. He apparently referred to Russian forces' decision to storm the school where the militants took their hostages.
Russian officials said they had not planned to assault the building and that commandos went in only after militants set off explosions and began shooting fleeing hostages.
The 25-nation EU understood that Russian authorities had few options, Bot said. He said the tragedy highlighted the need for Russia to end the long-standing conflict in Chechnya and that the EU would continue to push for a peaceful resolution to the fighting.
"All of us express our profound solidarity," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
"The fight for terrorism: It's the one we have to win," he said.
"The international community has to unite against terrorism that denies common human values to all the world's civilizations," said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "There is no reason that could justify such inhuman violence."
The Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, added: "The perverse cycle of violence must be stopped by firmness in countering terrorism and by clear sight in confronting its causes."
Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson said the "evil deed" of targeting children would bring the international community together. It makes the world "understand what times we're living in, how vulnerable our communities are and what types of crimes and terror we have to deal with," he told Swedish news agency TT.
From the Middle East, several leaders cabled Putin to convey condolences and denounce the hostage-takers.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Beirut "denounces all forms of terror, especially that which threatens the lives of children and innocents." A similar message was sent by Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah.
In Jordan, government spokeswoman Asma Khader condemned the hostage-taking as "heinous," saying "no cause can be achieved by such criminal means."
International organizations devoted to children were outraged.
"I am appalled that a school and its pupils are being used for political ends," UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said in a statement. "Schools are where children learn to live together. The safety of schools must never be threatened. I condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms."