By Richard Ayton and Oliver Bullough
BESLAN, Russia (Reuters) - More than 200 people -- dozens of them children -- have been killed and hundreds wounded in a bloody schoolyard battle that Russian troops blamed on Chechen hostage-takers.
Terrified children, some naked and others with bloodied faces, ran screaming for safety on Friday after a 53-hour ordeal at the hands of gunmen with bombs strapped to their waists. Machinegun fire rattled out and helicopters clattered overhead.
The Russian military was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency late on Friday as saying all resistance had been quelled at the school but it was still hunting for three gunmen. Amid the chaos, a top official said some children were still being held.
Burly soldiers grabbed the fleeing children and rushed them to waiting medics. Some had blood streaming from wounds.
"I smashed the window to get out," one boy with a bandaged hand told Russian television. "People were running in all directions ... (The guerrillas) were shooting from the roof."
The children, many stripped to their underwear after two days without food or drink in stiflingly hot and crowded conditions, gulped down bottles of water and waited in a daze for relatives as gunfire crackled round them.
CONFUSION AND CARNAGE
Official details and figures fluctuated amid the confusion and carnage in Beslan in the North Ossetia region bordering troubled Chechnya, where Moscow has faced a decade-old revolt.
"More than 200 people died as a result of shooting by the gunmen or from wounds received as a result of explosions set off by the gunmen," a Health Ministry source in North Ossetia was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Russian media said 860 pupils attended Middle School No.1. Their number may have been swollen to around 1,500 by parents and relatives attending a first-day ceremony traditional in Russian schools.
The Emergencies Ministry said 704 people, including 259 children, were in hospital. Many of the wounded were being treated in mobile hospitals set up by authorities.
Bullet holes riddled the red brick walls of the school and smoke rose from the collapsed roof of the gymnasium.
Six bodies lay covered with white sheets near the school gates, one the almost naked corpse of a girl of around 16.
Russian authorities said they had been forced into an unplanned rescue operation when the hostage-takers opened fire on fleeing children.
Moments before the battle erupted, officials said they had sent a vehicle to fetch the bodies of people killed in Wednesday's seizure of the school.
"No military action was planned. We were planning further talks," said Valery Andreyev, regional head of Russia's FSB security service.
RUSSIA SAYS 10 ARABS KILLED
Andreyev said 10 Arabs had been among about 20 gunmen killed, adding fuel to Russia's contention that Chechen rebels are backed by foreign Islamic militants.
Some officials suggested an al Qaeda financing link to the gunmen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 on a promise to restore order in Chechnya after years of violent rebellion and hostage-takings similar to the one in Beslan.
A total of 129 hostages and 41 rebels were killed when Putin sent in troops to overpower Chechen rebels who seized a Moscow theatre in 2002. But violence in the region and elsewhere in Russia has raged on.
World leaders sent messages of support and sympathy to Russia, although many have questioned Moscow's human rights record in an often bloody campaign against Chechen rebels seeking independence for their region.
"This is yet another grim reminder of the lengths to which terrorists will go to threaten the civilised world," U.S. President George W. Bush told a rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, where he was campaigning for re-election.
"We stand with the people of Russia."
GUNMEN SPLIT UP
Russian media said the fleeing gunmen split up after escaping from the school.
Tass quoted the Russian military as saying three of the gunmen had been captured.
Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, said the gunmen had demanded an independent Chechnya, the first clear link between them and a decade-long separatist rebellion in the neighbouring province.
Attacks linked to Chechen separatists have surged in the past few weeks as Chechnya elected a head for its pro-Moscow administration to replace an assassinated predecessor.
Last week, suicide bombers were blamed for the near-simultaneous crash of two passenger planes in which 90 people died. This week, in central Moscow, a suicide bomber blew herself up, killing nine people.