Report: More than 200 dead after troops storm school
Three hostage-takers reportedly being interrogated; 27 killed
BESLAN, Russia (CNN) -- The operation to end the school hostage crisis in Russia is over, an emergency official said late Friday, but more than 200 people have died.
The Interfax news agency, quoting Russian health officials, reported the death toll.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived early Saturday in an unexpected visit to the siege town.
"Nobody wanted to use force, and Russia is grieving with the people of North Ossetia," he said, referring to the people in the province where the attack happened.
Russian security officials said Putin visited wounded in the hospital and has been meeting with local officials.
Officials from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said that 704 people, including 259 children, were freed Friday after police and soldiers stormed the school.
It was not immediately clear how many of those who survived were wounded, but officials have said hundreds were injured.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said 79 bodies have been identified.
Interfax news agency has said more than 200 were killed and the death toll is expected to rise. Interfax also said 27 hostage-takers were killed and three were captured alive.
As rain fell in Beslan, soldiers began deactivating explosives that had been placed in the school. No gunfire was heard, but there were large explosions in the evening that appeared to be part of the de-mining operation.
Reports said as many as 1,200 hostages might have been inside the school and that 70 percent of them were children. Earlier reports had placed the number of hostages at a few hundred. (Map of school)
Valery Andreyev, head of the local branch of the FSB intelligence service, said 400 people had been freed as commandos stormed the school in an unplanned attack.
Andreyev said 10 of the dead hostage-takers were from Arab countries. It was thought that the rebels were all residents of the restive Republic of Chechnya or other parts of the Russian Caucasus.
Chechens in the past have been affiliated with the al Qaeda terror network, and an Arab connection in this incident further suggests a link between the Chechen rebel movement and international terrorists.
The standoff began Wednesday morning when armed militants took children, parents and teachers hostage on the first day of school in Beslan, located in North Ossetia, near Chechnya, where rebels have been fighting Russia and demanding independence for the Muslim-majority republic.
Raid wasn't planned
An FSB official told Russian media that troops had been ready for a long siege.
However, the forces stormed the building around midday after Russian officials, under a cease-fire agreement with militants, tried to collect bodies lying outside the building.
There was an explosion, scores of hostages fled, and hostage-takers opened fire on the children and rescue workers. One of the workers was killed and another was wounded.
One witness told a reporter that a hostage-taker had set off a suicide bomb in a gymnasium full of children.
Russian troops then opened fire at the rebels, and the battle began.
Russian forces blasted holes in a building of the school to create passages through which hostages could escape and soldiers could enter. The roof of the building collapsed onto the crowd below.
During the assault, a Russian soldier and a news cameraman were wounded by gunfire.
Interfax quoted a Defense official as saying that "the terrorists planted a lot of mines and booby-traps filled with metal bolts in the gym" where hostages were held.
Near the scene, news footage showed bodies of children on stretchers.
One woman leaned down to a young boy, hugging and caressing the youth, who shared a stretcher with a body. Other women stood, holding their hands to their mouths and weeping.
Children who survived said they were denied food and water and had to take off their clothes because of the heat. Some boys said that because they had no water, they had to drink their own urine.
The standoff followed a bloody week in Russia, in which a female suicide bomber killed nine people outside a Moscow subway station Tuesday and two airliners were downed by two suspected Chechen female suicide bombers on August 24, killing all 89 on board.
Russian officials have suggested the new wave of attacks is an attempt at revenge for last weekend's elections in Chechnya, in which a Kremlin-backed candidate won the presidency.
On Friday, the State Department issued an alert to Americans in Russia or traveling to Russia that "the potential for terrorist actions, including actions against civilians, is high and likely will remain so for some time."
Citing the plane crashes, hostage standoff and other violence in recent years, the State Department warned Americans against travel to Chechnya and nearby areas.
"United States government personnel are prohibited from traveling to these areas, and American citizens residing in these areas should depart immediately as the safety of Americans and other foreigners cannot be effectively guaranteed," the alert said.
The alert said there is no indication that Americans or American installations are being targeted but "the possibility of an American citizen being a random victim of these attacks exists."