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Today’s attack on a school in Russia, apparently by Chechen rebels, is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said today. A group of masked men and women took about 300 school children, their parents and teachers hostage.

“No political cause can ever justify hostage-taking,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The attackers should immediately release the hostages.”

The attack happened at about 9 A.M., as people were gathering in the schoolyard for ceremonies marking the beginning of the school year. According to press reports, four people were killed and at least 10 were wounded in the course of the attack. The attackers reportedly demanded the withdrawal of federal troops from Chechnya and the release of those held in custody in connection with the June 21-22 attacks on police stations in Ingushetia by rebels operating from Chechnya.

The hostage-taking marks the third attack on civilians in Russia in the past week. On August 25, two airplanes crashed simultaneously after explosions on board, killing a total of 89 persons. Yesterday a suicide bomber blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing 10 and wounding 46.

It is unclear which Chechen rebel group is responsible for the attacks and for the hostage-taking.

Human Rights Watch also urged Russian authorities to take all measures to prevent harm to the hostages. In an October 2002 operation to rescue 700 hostages held by Chechen rebels at the Nord Ost theater in Moscow, security forces pumped a gas into the main hall to incapacitate the hostage-takers. About 117 hostages died, apparently due to the effects of the gas; many were not given basic medical care immediately after their rescue.

The taking of hostages during an internal armed conflict is a violation of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

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