Handling of '04 Beslan siege criticized

Russian commission accuses local police of `neglect' in failing to prevent hostage situation at school

December 29, 2005|By KIM MURPHY

MOSCOW -- Authorities in southern Russia were warned of a possible attack on a school a day before 1,128 hostages were seized at a school in Beslan but took no preventive measures even though the attackers were camped near a road and made no attempt to hide, a parliament commission reported yesterday.

The panel accused local police of "neglect and carelessness" in failing to prevent the attack, but the findings drew immediate criticism from survivors of the siege because they absolved senior federal officials and agencies from responsibility for the worst terrorist attack in Russian history.

The report is not final because it does not address some of the most crucial questions about the September 2004 hostage-taking - including what set off the initial explosion and what caused the fatal roof fire in the school gymnasium that killed many of the 318 hostages, including 186 children. Ten law enforcement officers, two emergency workers and a civilian rescue worker also died

"They had a whole year to prepare this; no one was in their way. And still, they didn't answer the most important questions," said Susanna Dudieva, head of the Beslan Mothers Committee. "The whole point of their report is to demonstrate that the federal authorities handled the situations without any mistakes and all the mistakes were made at the lower levels. And this is not true."

Three-day standoff

The three-day standoff began when a reported 32 militants demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist republic of Chechnya seized a school, holding teachers, parents and children without food or water for nearly three days in a gymnasium laced with explosives. All but one of the militants also died.

Commission Chairman Alexander P. Torshin told a joint session of parliament that the panel also has not reached a final conclusion on how law enforcement officers handled the storming and rescue operation but expects to draw additional conclusions in the next few months.

Beslan residents have accused the federal authorities of failing to conduct meaningful negotiations with the hostage-takers, and then storming the school with so much heavy weaponry that many hostages died unnecessarily when fire collapsed the roof of the gym on top of them.

There has also been court testimony from the only surviving hostage-taker that a sniper's bullet touched off the first explosion - an allegation that Torshin said the commission had "ruled out" because a sniper would have had no line of sight into the gym. He also said the panel had established that flamethrowers fired by federal troops could not have ignited the fire on the gym roof.

But another member of the investigative commission, Yuri Savelyev, said the flamethrower inquiry is far from resolved. Evidence from witnesses, still being evaluated, suggests the fire had been ignited in the insulation above the gym ceiling before the explosives in the gym were detonated by the heat, he said.

Savelyev said the panel also has not addressed witness reports that hostages placed in the windows as human shields were killed by bullets fired from outside. "They put them in the windows and said, `Wave and yell, so the people on your side don't start shooting at their own, so they see that you are here.' But they were shot at not only with automatic weapons, but with grenade launchers," he said.

Commandos praised

Repeatedly, the panel's interim report applauded the conduct of special forces commandos, crediting them with deliberately drawing fire onto themselves and even covering fleeing hostages' bodies with their own in a rescue attempt that freed 73 percent of the captives. Fifty-five commandos were wounded in the operation, along with the 10 who died.

Torshin rejected assertions from many Beslan residents that the commandos and other federal troops deliberately stormed the school to end the standoff and destroy the militants with little regard to hostage lives.

"Believe me, the main task was to save hostages. If there were a different task, we wouldn't have ended up with so many losses among the ... officers. They were trying to save children," he said.

The commission was far less complimentary of local police in North Ossetia, where Beslan is, and neighboring Ingushetia, where the militants apparently camped unhindered for several days before the operation. Local authorities did not beef up checkpoints or road patrols despite several warnings beginning as early as Aug. 6 from federal authorities in Moscow that intelligence reports had been received of a likely terrorist operation, the panel found.

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