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Remembering Beslan

03.10.2009    source:
David Satter
New information makes clear that the siege was the result of a failed Russian provocation, that the Putin regime refused negotiations capable of ending the crisis and, in the absence of hostile action, ordered Russian Special Forces to open fire with heavy weapons on a gymnasium packed with hostages, guaranteeing a catastrophic death toll

Five years have passed since pro-Chechen terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan, a city in the North Caucasus, provoking a hostage crisis that ended in the massacre of 146 adults and 186 children. But the memory of those ghastly events continues to haunt Russia today.

Terrorists had never targeted a school before, and there was worldwide revulsion at their actions. But expert testimony, rediscovered videotape and the recollections of survivors now make clear that blame also belongs to the Putin regime whose actions during the crisis were largely overlooked at the time.

In the last five years, new information about the siege has come from many sources. These include Yuri Saveliev, a parliamentarian and member of the federal investigative commission; a commission of the North Ossetian parliament; the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, a surviving terrorist; and the work of two journalists, Marina Litvinovich, the editor of the Web site,, and Elena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta.

This information shows that the attack on School No. 1 was not the forced response of a government desperate to save lives but, on the contrary, was the act of a regime ready to destroy them for political gain. It makes clear that the siege was the result of a failed Russian provocation, that the Putin regime refused negotiations capable of ending the crisis and, in the absence of hostile action, ordered Russian Special Forces to open fire with heavy weapons on a gymnasium packed with hostages, guaranteeing a catastrophic death toll. There is simply no parallel among modern governments to the level of barbarity demonstrated by the Russian regime in their response to the hostage crisis in Beslan.

Although the authorities blamed the attack on Chechen terrorists, and Putin, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, suggested that the terrorists enjoyed the support of the West, new evidence now shows that the attack was the result of a failed Russian provocation.

In August 2004, according to police documents obtained by Novaya Gazeta, Kazbek Mamaev, the head of security of the North Ossetian police, received a report from an informant that a group of Chechens were planning an act of terror that would involve children. Yet this report apparently was not acted upon. Nor was it alone. Other reports about preparations for a terrorist act in North Ossetia were being received at the time with chilling regularity. The last one came on Sept. 1, 2004. At 5 a.m., the Russian internal affairs ministry was informed by the Chechen police that a man named Arsamikov who was arrested in Chechnya said that there were plans by terrorists on that day to seize a school in Beslan. This gave the police four hours to avert the seizure, but no action was taken. Moreover, all roadblocks on the route to the school were removed, giving the terrorists unhindered access.

In the months preceding the school seizure, many of the terrorists who would participate were walking around freely in their home villages although they were wanted criminals. The terrorists’ second in command, Vladimir Khodov, a Ukrainian convert to Islam, was involved in two terrorist attacks in North Ossetia, a car bombing in Vladikavkaz in February 2004 and a train derailment in May near Elkhotovo, his hometown. After the bombing in Vladikavkaz, he was made the subject of a federal search, and his photograph was hung up all over the republic. Nonetheless, during the spring and summer, Khodov lived openly in Elkhotovo. His presence was reported to the republican Federal Security Service and the police organized crime division but, for some reason, he was not apprehended.

The official Russian investigation into Beslan ignored the question of why warnings were ignored, roadblocks were removed and known terrorists were not apprehended, but an explanation came from an unexpected quarter. Shamil Basaev, the Chechen terrorist leader who planned the Beslan attack and was killed on July 10, 2006, in a letter entitled, "We have a lot to tell about Beslan ..." published on the separatist Web site Kavkaz Center, Aug. 31, 2005 wrote that the attackers were pushed toward the seizure of the school by the leadership of the special services of North Ossetia with the help of their agent, Abdulla (Vladimir) Khodov.

According to Basaev, Khodov carried out the terrorist acts in Vladikavkaz and Elkhotovo with the help of the secret services in order to win the trust of Basaev. He then suggested to Basaev a suicide mission to seize the parliament and government of North Ossetia. However, Khodov, after a month, confessed to being an agent and Basaev persuaded him to become a double agent. In that capacity, he led the Russians to believe that the terrorists were preparing to seize the North Ossetian government and parliament on Sept. 6, the anniversary of Chechen independence. The Russian special services, Basaev wrote, "intended [on Sept. 6] to meet the group as they entered Vladikavkaz and destroy them. On Aug. 31, they opened a corridor for us for the active collection of intelligence, but we used it to enter Beslan [and seize the school], changing the date and objective of the attack."

Nikolai Shepel, the deputy general prosecutor for the Southern Federal Region, described Basaev’s letter as "informational terrorism." Its contents, however, were never investigated. In fact, there was considerable evidence in police files that Khodov was indeed an agent of the North Ossetia special services. In October 2004, a month after the tragedy, A.A. Bigulov, the North Ossetian prosecutor, said in a report to the Russian ministry of internal affairs that despite repeated requests for the whereabouts of Khodov sent to the police in his hometown, no steps were taken to determine his location and no effort was made to detain him. He called for a check on whether Khodov was a police agent and punishment of those responsible for carelessness and inaction in the search for him.

It is also now known that the pro-Chechen terrorists were ready to negotiate and that the Russians steadfastly refused any talks even after it was clear that agreement to negotiations would have saved lives.

The rebels demanded that Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, begin negotiations with them. But Dzasokhov was ordered by Putin to turn over the counter-terrorist operation to the Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB set up its own crisis headquarters from which Dzasokhov was barred and threatened to arrest him if he tried to go to the school. The FSB negotiator, Vitaly Zangionov, limited himself to giving formal questions to the terrorists over the telephone, such as whether they wanted a doctor or an exit corridor but did not react to their demands.

Anna Politkovskaya, the well-known Russian investigative journalist who was murdered in October 2006, could have played an important role as a negotiator, but she was poisoned while on a flight to Rostov en route to Beslan. Instead of helping to mediate the hostage crisis, she was taken for emergency treatment to a hospital in Rostov. A nurse later told her that she was "almost hopeless" when she was brought in. Only the FSB was in a position to arrange such a poisoning.

As tension grew, Dzasokhov appealed for help to Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetiya, the republic that neighbors North Ossetia and a critic of Putin. He also called Akhmed Zakayev, the representative of the Chechen resistance in London who promised to contact Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatist leader and deposed president. On Sept. 2, Aushev entered the school and left with 26 hostages, 15 children and 11 women. He also brought out a note and a cassette with the terrorists’ demands. The demands came from Basaev who prepared the operation but was not present in Beslan. The authorities falsely stated that the terrorists had presented no demands.

In fact, the terms suggested by Basaev would have provided the basis for a peaceful settlement of the Chechen conflict. He proposed formal independence for Chechnya in return for guarantees of Russian security and said that Chechnya would remain in the ruble zone and join the Commonwealth of Independent States. He also said that although Chechen rebels had no part in the Russian apartment bombings in 1999 that were the pretext for the start of the Second Chechen War, the rebels would agree to take responsibility for them, an indication that he knew or was convinced that the bombings were carried out by the FSB.

On Sept. 2 at 10:15 p.m., Zakayev announced through the foreign press that Maskhadov had agreed to come to Beslan to mediate the crisis. There were no preliminary conditions. Maskhadov did not even ask for a guarantee of his own safety. He asked only to be allowed to enter the school. At noon on Sept. 3, Zakaev gave the news that Maskhadov was ready to come to the school to Dzasokhov. This was reported to Vladimir Pronichev, the head of the FSB operation on the ground. The attack on the school began one hour later.

The most emotional question connected to Beslan is who shot first, touching off the massacre. The official version is that the attack on the gymnasium began after the explosion of a bomb inside the hall set off by one of the terrorists. Survivors at the trial of Kulaev, however, said that there was no explosion inside the gymnasium and that the Russians attacked the school with flamethrowers and grenade launchers. Officials, at first, denied that flamethrowers had been used, but the survivors recovered used tubes from flamethrowers that had been found near the school and presented them in court. The flamethrower in question fires a capsule that on detonation creates a fireball and a shock wave that destroys everything in its path.

The version of the Beslan parents was supported by the findings of a commission of the North Ossetian parliament. In a report released on Nov. 29, 2005, the commission concluded that the first explosion was produced by either a flamethrower or grenade launcher fired from outside.

The most important support for the survivors’ assertions, however, came in a report released by Yuri Saveliev, a member of the parliamentary commission appointed to investigate the massacre and a highly regarded expert on the physics of combustion. According to Saveliev, the first explosion was the result of a shot from a flamethrower fired from the fifth floor of a building near the school at 1:03 p.m. The second explosion, which came 22 seconds later, was caused by a fragmentation grenade with a dynamite equivalent of 6.1 kilograms shot from a different five story building on the same street. The explosions, according to Saveliev, caused an inferno and the collapse of the roof of the gymnasium that led to the deaths of the majority of the hostages. Another 106 to 110 hostages died after terrorists moved them from the burning gym to the cafeteria which came under heavy fire from security forces using rocket launchers, flamethrowers and tanks.

Saveliev was the only specialist on the commission. Nonetheless, when he presented his conclusions, he was accused by the chairman, Alexander Torshin, of "deliberate falsification." In July 2007, however, members of the group "Mothers of Beslan" received copies of a videotape of the events in the mail. It was taken by an employee of the procuracy of North Ossetia and had been reported to be "lost" for three years. The videotape contained an interview with two sappers who entered the gymnasium at 3 p.m. on their own initiative in an effort to save lives. In the interview, which took place at roughly 4 p.m., the sappers said that the homemade explosive devices of the rebels had not exploded and were incapable of exploding and that there were no fragments in the walls. The interview confirmed Saveliev’s conclusion that there were no explosions inside the gymnasium.

According to Milashina, writing in Novaya Gazeta, the tapes also showed that at 3:08 p.m., the gymnasium and the school began to be massively fired upon from grenade launchers and flamethrowers. Three mushroom-like clouds rose over the school, two white ones and one black one. Tanks belonging to the 58th army were also firing at the school. In all, the tape showed 13 explosions. It was only at 3:10 p.m., after the firing ceased, that the head of the Special Forces, General Alexander Tikhonov, gave an order to begin putting out the fire. Up until that time, for more than two hours, Tikhonov forbade anyone from extinguishing the fire. By the time the fire actually began to be suppressed, at 3:28 p.m., more than 100 hostages had been burned alive. The postmortem autopsies listed thermal shock as the cause of death, i.e., almost 100% of the victims’ skin covering had been scorched. The hostages showed no other wounds from bullets or fragments.

There is another detail that contributes to an understanding of who was responsible for the deaths of so many parents and children. According to numerous eyewitness accounts, when the Russian attack began, the terrorists tried to save themselves and, incredible as it may seem, also to save the hostages.

The seizure of a school by terrorists riveted the entire world while it was going on, but attention has long since moved on to other horrors. What is left, however, is a very distorted picture of what, in reality, was a Russian crime against humanity. Russian forces attacked a school gymnasium packed with helpless hostages according to the classic tenets of military doctrine for destroying a reinforced object. In order to kill 32 terrorists, they slaughtered 342 innocent hostages in the most horrific manner possible, and they did so after agreement had been reached on negotiations involving the elected leader of Chechnya that would have ended the crisis. At the same time, the seizure of the school was the fruit of a failed Russian provocation aimed at the government complex in North Ossetia that, had it occurred, might also have resulted in a heavy loss of innocent life.

In the five years that have passed since Beslan, the dead have been buried and the pain of what happened is shared by only a few. But the behaviour of the Russian authorities in the school siege should be a matter of international concern because it describes an attitude toward human life that is indistinguishable from that of the terrorists.

The Russian actions also fully conform with the definition of a crime against humanity. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to qualify as a crime against humanity, an offense must be "particularly odious" and constitute "a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or degradation of one of more human beings." An indiscriminate attack in which children are burned alive cannot be described otherwise. The crime must also be part of government policy, and it must reflect a "widespread and or systematic practice." The killing of the hostages reflected an entire false conception on the part of the Russian regime of the priority of political objectives over the lives of human beings.

Under these circumstances, it is important that the true story of the Beslan tragedy be preserved. It will do little to lessen the impact of what happened or, in all likelihood, dissuade the present Russian leadership from similar tactics in another hostage crisis in the future. But it will clarify a situation that has been confused and obfuscated for too long. As recent political events show, including the naive and uninformed call for a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations, we do not see Russia clearly. This is not in the interest of the West. And, of course, history too has its claims.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).

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