BESLAN, Russia – President Vladimir Putin (search) ordered the borders of North Ossetia (search) closed Saturday as security forces searched the southern region for militants who escaped the Russian storming of a school where they had held hundreds of people hostage, many who fled the building under fire. A news agency reported 322 bodies were pulled from the rubble.
Another 500 or so people remained hospitalized following the bloody and chaotic gunbattle Friday. Many were said to have been killed or wounded when a roof collapsed from an explosion before the Russian assault of the building began.
"All Russia grieves with you," Putin said during a visit to the scene Saturday, carried on government television. "Even alongside the most cruel attacks of the past, this terrorist act occupies a special place because it was aimed at children."
The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Russian Deputy Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky (search) as saying 322 bodies, including those of 155 children, had been recovered from the school. It was a stunning figure because Russian officials had said only a day before that there were only 350 hostages — a number that turned out to be at least three times lower than now believed.
Putin said he had ordered North Ossetia's borders closed while officials searched for suspects in the hostage-taking, carried out by militants seeking independence for the nearby republic of Chechnya.
"One of the goals of the terrorists was to sow ethnic enmity and blow up the North Caucasus," Putin said. "Anyone who gives in to such a provocation will be viewed by us as abetting terrorism," he said.
Valery Andreyev, Russia's Federal Security Service chief in the region, said 10 Arabs were among 27 militants killed. The Arab presence among the attackers would support Putin's contention that al-Qaida terrorists were deeply involved in the Chechen conflict, where Muslim fighters have been battling Russian forces on and off for more than a decade.
The Federal Security Service chief in North Ossetia, Valery Andreyev, said more than 30 militants had seized the school. Channel One and NTV television reported that three of them had been captured.
New evidence suggested the attack had been planned long beforehand. Andreyev said Saturday that investigators were looking into whether militants had smuggled the explosives and weapons into the school and hidden them during a renovation this summer.
For some North Ossetians, grief had turned to anger.
"Fathers will bury their children, and after 40 days (the Orthodox Christian mourning period) ... they will take up weapons and seek revenge," said Alan Kargiyev, a 20-year-old university student in the regional capital Vladikavkaz.
The attack follows a suicide bomb attack outside a Moscow subway station Tuesday that killed eight people, and last week's near-simultaneous crash of two Russian jetliners last week after what officials believe were explosions on board. Those attacks were also linked to the conflict in Chechnya.
Putin arrived with smoke still rising from the shattered school, just hours after the last scattered shooting died away.
On Friday, commandos stormed the building and battled militants as crying children, some half-naked and covered with blood, fled through explosions and gunfire. Other children lay dead on stretchers lined up outside.
Dozens of people crowded around lists of survivors posted at the Beslan hospital, searching desperately for news of loved ones who were not yet accounted for. A man showed hospital nurses a photograph — a young boy dressed in a suit, like he was going to a birthday party or holiday celebration.
"We run here, we run there, like we're out of our minds, trying to find out anything we can about them," said Tsiada Biazrova, 47, whose neighbors' children had yet to be found.
The majority of the dead who were found in the gym were killed by explosions before the assault began, causing part of the roof to collapse, Interfax and ITAR-Tass said, citing North Ossetian police.
An explosives expert told NTV television that the hostage-takers, themselves strapped with explosives, hung bombs from basketball hoops in the gym and set other explosive devices in the building.
Russian authorities said they stormed the building after the militants set off explosions and fired shots as emergency teams approached to collect the bodies of several men killed earlier. They said the hostage-takers had given them permission to take the corpses away.
As hostages took their chance to flee, the militants opened fire on them, and security forces — along with town residents who had brought their own weapons — opened covering fire to help the hostages escape. Commandos stormed into the building and secured it, then chased fleeing militants in the town, with shooting lasting for 10 hours.
Fleeing hostages, many of them wounded, streamed from the building into the surrounding area and parents searched frantically for their children. Ambulances couldn't carry all the injured and private cars were pressed into service.
The operation ended a 62-hour ordeal that began when masked gunmen burst into the school courtyard on Wednesday, shooting in the air and herding people into the gym.
The region's governor, Alexander Dzasokhov, said Friday that the militants had demanded that Russian troops leave Chechnya — the first solid indication that the attack was connected to the rebellion.
Hostages told of more than two days of unspeakable horror — of children so frightened they couldn't sleep, of captors coolly threatening to kill off hostages one by one. The gym where they were held was so cramped there was hardly room to move and so hot adults encouraged children to strip off their clothes.
When children fainted from lack of sleep, food and water, their captors simply sneered, said Alla Gadieyeva, 24, who was taken captive with her 7-year-old son and mother, all three among the survivors.
"They were totally indifferent," Gadieyeva said.
President Bush said the hostage siege was "another grim reminder" of the lengths to which terrorists will go. World governments joined Washington in condemning the militants.
Putin warned against letting the latest attack in North Ossetia stir up tensions in the multiethnic North Caucasus region. "One of the goals of the terrorists was to sow ethnic enmity and blow up the North Caucasus," Putin said.
"Anyone who gives in to such a provocation will be viewed by us as abetting terrorism," he said.
Putin saw several of the hospitalized victims, stopping to stroke the head of one injured child and the arm of a woman.
Two emergency services workers were killed and three wounded, Interfax reported. Eighteen wounded commandos were being treated in a Defense Ministry hospital in the town of Vladikavkaz, the news agency reported, most of them with bullet wounds.
Intermittent negotiations led to the freeing of about 26 women and children on Thursday, and Russian officials and others had been in on-and-off contacts with the hostage-takers, but with few signs of progress toward a resolution.
Russian officials stressed that they had not planned to storm the school. The militants had reportedly threatened to blow up the building if authorities used force.
Two major hostage-taking raids by Chechen rebels outside the war-torn region in the past decade provoked Russian rescue operations that led to many deaths. 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.
In 1995 — during the first of two wars in Chechnya in the past decade — rebels led by guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev seized a hospital in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, taking some 2,000 people hostage. The six-day standoff ended with a fierce Russian assault, and some 100 people died.