The military-looking truck parked at the sports complex across the street from Middle School No. 1 around 9 a.m. and waited half an hour while children celebrated the first day of school. When hundreds of helium-filled balloons floated up-signaling the end of the opening ceremony-the truck rolled into the schoolyard. Militants by the dozens in black masks and camouflage leaped out.
Brandishing AK-47s and grenade launchers, the attackers fired into the air. They herded hundreds of people, mostly children, into the school gymnasium. About a dozen children ran into the school's boiler room. They later escaped. So began a frightening hostage crisis on Sept. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, a tiny autonomous republic near the border with Russia's other troubled republic, Chechnya.
Parents began hearing that militants had taken over the school. Some heard they were fighters from neighboring Ingushetia doing a favor for extremist Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev. The account infuriated them, said eyewitness Genady Terkun, a local missionary with Wheaton, Ill.-based Russian Ministries (formerly Peter Deyneka Ministries). Ossetians fought with neighboring Ingushetia in 1992, and memories are fresh. Residents grabbed their leftover weapons from the war and charged down to the school even before police and army forces arrived.
When Russian army troops showed up, they cordoned off would-be civilian militiamen. They also blocked anxious parents who gathered by the hundreds. Meanwhile, the terrorists, who wore explosives strapped to their bodies, set up detonators and more explosives around the school. Between noon and 2 p.m., they stationed children in the windows, turning them into human shields. Attack us, they told troops, and we will kill 20 children for every militant injured. Kill us, they said, and the number would be 50.
For authorities in Moscow, the school takeover was the third time in eight days they had been cornered by terrorists. The night before, an Islamic female suicide bomber blew herself up at a Moscow subway station, killing nine and wounding 50. One week earlier, two planes crashed within minutes of each other; traces of explosives were found on board. But as the siege in Beslan stretched past the 24-hour mark-with militants denying captives food and medicine-the prolonged terror for hundreds of children unnerved all of Russia.
Mr. Terkun waited with some 500 relatives and parents of the hostage children in the sports complex, in view of a corner of the gymnasium about 1,000 feet away. "They were all shocked," he said. "People did not know what to do, what to talk about. From time to time we could hear rifle shots from the top of the school." Much of the news he received and relayed to WORLD came via cell phone from a friend who had staked out a spot 500 feet from the school.
Among the hostages are children of two Ossetian brothers who work for Russian Ministries, Sergey and Taymuraz Totiev. Militants held three of Sergey's six children, and all five of Taymuraz's children, ranging in age from 7 to 14. The Christian men, whom Mr. Terkun described as "courageous and firm," tried to comfort the terrified crowd.
"We have to rely on God, and God can bring our children to safety," Taymuraz Totiev told them. "That's our only hope now." Men nodded quietly while women raised their hands to heaven and prayed it would be so. They prayed too for divine revenge on the militants, Mr. Terkun said.
Around 5 p.m. a thunderstorm and soaking rain scattered the crowd and continued late into the night. The Totievs retreated to a nearby house for a prayer meeting with other Christians. The militants demanded talks with regional officials and the release of Ingush rebels detained after a series of June attacks on Ingushetia police stations. As another day dawned, casualty reports were mixed: Between two and eight were killed, including one parent, and at least two injured.
The terrorist crisis was the worst since 2002 when Chechen rebels held 700 Russians hostage in a Moscow theater. To break that deadlock, Russian forces piped in deadly gas, killing all the terrorists and 129 theatergoers in the process. The Kremlin trod carefully with the latest hostage-takers, hoping to avoid another public-relations disaster and multiple civilian deaths. But while President Vladimir Putin grappled with the spate of attacks, expectations that this showdown could be solved bloodlessly ebbed outside Middle School No. 1.