Russia grieves as search for kin goes on

Hard questions asked after tragedy in Beslan

The World

September 06, 2004|By Kim Murphy and David Holley | Kim Murphy and David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BESLAN, Russia - The sound of weeping floated out of open windows and doors across this town yesterday as relatives began to bury more than 330 victims of a three-day hostage ordeal at a middle school that ended in chaos and bloodshed.

People greeted friends in the street, hugged one another and cried. Some showed growing resentment at how authorities handled the incident, which ended Friday with explosions and fierce gunbattles between hostage-takers and Russian commandos.

For many, along with the tears, a frantic search for friends and family continued.

The school gymnasium where many hostages died became a memorial site yesterday, as friends and relatives came to place flowers, Russian Orthodox icons and water bottles in tribute to the dead. The water carried symbolic meaning because the hostages were held for most of the time without being given anything to drink.

Oleg Tatomov, 35, was among the first residents allowed into the gym, where militants believed to be linked to separatist rebels in the nearby republic of Chechnya had held more than 1,000 hostages.

"Part of the reason I went there is I wanted to find my mother-in-law," he said. "She's not in the hospital. She's not in the morgue. She's not anywhere."

Tatomov said that his 3-year-old son had been a hostage and that he had found him in a hospital in Vladikavkaz, 10 miles away, after a long and desperate search. The boy is expected to recover, he said.

A 25-year-old man in Beslan, who was willing to give only his first name, Alan, was interviewed while cleaning up glass from windows that were broken by the shock waves of explosions at the school.

"The smashed windowpanes are no damage at all compared to the fact that my sisters and my niece have disappeared," he said.

"How could these terrorists have managed to come here?" he asked. "We asked this question on Sept. 1, and we still have not been given an answer. ... How could they allow the storming of the school to begin when there were more than 1,000 people in there and the majority were children? I don't know what to think. ... If you go to the morgue, you could see a young child less than 5 years old, and his body is full of bullet holes. How could this have been allowed?"

Russian authorities said they had no plans to storm the school but that gunbattles erupted after an explosion - perhaps set off accidentally by the hostage-takers - rocked the complex and hostages began to flee with captors in pursuit.

A tearful Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, the republic in which Beslan is located, visited hospitalized children. "I want to beg your pardon for failing to protect children, teachers and parents," he said.

Dozens of severely injured hostages, most of them children, were flown from this small town of 30,000 to Moscow for medical care. Many suffered brain injuries or severe burns, Russian news media reported.

The death toll as of yesterday evening stood at 335 hostages and 30 hostage-takers, authorities said.

Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for Dzasokhov, said 376 former hostages, including 193 children, are in the republic's hospitals. He said 207 bodies had been identified, and that 260 people are unaccounted for. Some bodies were so disfigured that genetic tests were needed to identify them, he said.

Authorities now believe there were 32 hostage-takers, and that the bodies of 30 have been found, Russia's deputy prosecutor-general, Sergei Fridinsky, told the Russian news agency Interfax. The hostage-takers were of various ethnic origins, including Chechens, Ingush, Kazakhs, Arabs and Slavs, he said.

Authorities had said initially that three hostage-takers had been detained, then said that all were killed and three alleged accomplices had been arrested.

In Beslan, crowds gathered at hospitals where lists of the injured were posted, and people walked around town with photos of missing loved ones, asking strangers whether they had seen them. Frantic parents approached television journalists and asked them to broadcast photos of their children.

"We're looking for our boy, Timur Tibloyev, 11 years old," said one mother, holding up a photo for a camera crew from Russia's ORT television station. "He hasn't been found among the dead or the living. I was with him, but we were separated by an explosion."

The large number of dead forced a sudden expansion of the town's cemetery into a neighboring field, where dozens of men dug graves yesterday morning. At least 22 former hostages were buried yesterday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The entire country shared in the grieving, with Russian television showing funeral processions moving through Beslan.

At Moscow's main cathedral, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II led a service honoring the victims. "The whole nation is mourning the tragedy," he said. "Those events were aimed at shaking the unity of our people. But the unity of our people is based on our history, which teaches us how to overcome difficulties and suffering."

Medical services in North Ossetia were overwhelmed by the number of victims.

"We're dealing for the first time with such inhuman things," said Yevgenia Pogosyan, a doctor at a Vladikavkaz hospital.

The Russian Red Cross issued an urgent appeal for donations to help pay for medical equipment.

The U.S. Embassy said the U.S. Agency for International Development would provide $50,000 for the medical treatment and support of victims, with the Russian Red Cross as the main recipient.

The German Foreign Ministry announced that it would give $123,000 to assist the injured and families of those who died.

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