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Putin Visits Scene of Carnage in Southern Russia, 322 Reported Dead - 2004-09-04


Russian President Vladimir Putin visited survivors of the school siege in southern Russia Saturday as people of the region mourned the death of more than 322 people. At least 600 people were injured during Friday's battle as Russian special forces took control of a school held for over two days by heavily-armed militants.

President Putin arrived in a pre-dawn visit to the town of Beslan where the hostage drama ended on Friday.

He comforted survivors of the siege in the town's main hospital and said that Friday's battle was not planned or initiated by Russian troops. Children held hostage inside the school gymnasium say a bomb went off accidentally and some ran away from the school. When militants began firing at them, Russian soldiers outside returned fire and then stormed the building.

Officials say more than 25 hostage-takers were killed and a handful appear to have slipped away. They say 10 of them were foreigners, mostly from Arab countries, although this has not been independently confirmed.

It also remains unclear exactly what the heavily-armed men and at least two women wanted, apart from a general demand that Russian troops leave war-shattered Chechnya after nearly a decade of war.

Other key questions are also being asked in the aftermath of Russia's deadliest act of terror. These include how the militants had so much firepower at their disposal, enough to fight off Russian special forces for hours.

A security official was quoted as saying the militants had smuggled weapons into the school during renovation work in recent weeks.

Lev Dzugaev is a top official in the local government.

He says, investigators are now looking into how that might have happened, how they could have stockpiled weapons of such high caliber on the school's territory.

No one has claimed responsibility for the siege but some officials believe the leader of the group has links to war-torn Chechnya's most notorious warlord, Shamil Basayev.

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