The Beslan school siege (also referred to as the Beslan school hostage crisis or Beslan massacre) started on 1 September 2004, lasted three days, involved the capture of over 1,100 people as hostages (including 777 children), and ended with the death of at least 385 people. The crisis began when a group of armed Islamic terrorists, mostly Ingush and Chechen, occupied School Number One (SNO) in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia (an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation) on 1 September 2004. The hostage-takers were the Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion, sent by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who demanded recognition of the independence of Chechnya, and UN and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. On the third day of the standoff, Russian security forces stormed the building with the use of tanks, incendiary rockets and other heavy weapons. At least 330 hostages were killed, including 186 children, with a significant number of people injured and reported missing.
The event led to security and political repercussions in Russia; most notably, it contributed to a series of federal government reforms consolidating power in the Kremlin and strengthening of the powers of the President of Russia. As of 2016, aspects of the crisis in relation to the militants continue to be contentious: questions remain regarding how many terrorists were involved, the nature of their preparations and whether a section of the group had escaped. Questions about the Russian government’s management of the crisis have also persisted, including allegations of disinformation and censorship in news media, whether the journalists who were present at Beslan were allowed to freely report on the crisis, the nature and content of negotiations with the terrorists, allocation of responsibility for the eventual outcome, and perceptions that excessive force was used.
Comintern Street SNO was one of seven schools in Beslan, a town of around 35,000 people in the republic of North Ossetia–Alania, in Russia’s Caucasus. The school, located next to the district police station, had around 60 teachers and more than 800 students. Its gymnasium, where most of the hostages were held for 52 hours, was a recent addition, measuring 10 metres wide and 25 metres long. There were reports that men disguised as repairmen had concealed weapons and explosives in the school sometime during July 2004, but this was later officially refuted. However, several witnesses have since testified they were made to help their captors remove the weapons from the caches hidden in the school. There were also claims that a “sniper’s nest” on the sports hall roof had been set up in advance.
It was also reported that the SNO in Beslan was used by Ossetian nationalist militia forces as an internment camp for ethnic Ingush civilians in late 1992 during the short but bloody Ingush–Ossetian East Prigorodny conflict, in which hundreds of Ingush residents of North Ossetia lost their lives or disappeared during the week-long hostilities, and thus the school was arguably chosen as the target of the attack by the mostly Ingush rebel group because of this connection. According to media reports, SNO was one of several buildings in which the Ossetian militants had held hundreds of Ingush hostages, many of them women and children. The hostages were all kept in the same gymnasium and were deprived of food and water; at least one newborn and several dozen male hostages were executed. Beslan was also the site of an airfield used by the Russian Air Force for combat operations in Chechnya since 1994.
Course of the crisis
– Day one
The attack on the school took place in 2004 on 1 September—the traditional start of the Russian school year, referred to as “First Bell” or Knowledge Day. On this day, the children, accompanied by their parents and other relatives, attend ceremonies hosted by their school. Because of the Knowledge Day festivities, the number of people in the schools was considerably higher than on a normal school day. Early in the morning, a group of several dozen heavily armed Islamic-nationalist guerrillas left a forest encampment located in the vicinity of the village of Psedakh in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, east of North Ossetia and west of war-torn Chechnya. The terrorists wore green military camouflage and black balaclava masks, and in some cases were also wearing explosive belts and explosive underwear. On the way to Beslan, on a country road near the North Ossetian village of Khurikau, they captured an Ingush police officer, Major Sultan Gurazhev. Gurazhev escaped after reaching the town[clarification needed] and went to the district police department to inform them that his duty handgun and badge were taken away.
At 09:11 local time, the terrorists arrived at Beslan in a GAZelle police van and a GAZ-66 military truck. Many witnesses and independent experts claim that there were, in fact, two groups of attackers, and that the first group was already at the school when the second group arrived by truck. At first, some at the school mistook the guerrillas for Russian special forces practicing a security drill. However, the attackers soon began shooting in the air and forcing everybody from the school grounds into the building. During the initial chaos, up to 50 people managed to flee and alert authorities to the situation. A number of people also managed to hide in the boiler room. After an exchange of gunfire against the police and an armed local civilian, in which reportedly one attacker was killed and two were wounded, the militants seized the school building. Reports of the death toll from this shoot-out ranged from two to eight people, while more than a dozen people were injured.
The attackers took approximately 1,100 hostages. The number of hostages was initially downplayed by the government to 200–400, and then for an unknown reason announced to be exactly 354. In 2005, their number was put at 1,128. The militants herded their captives into the school’s gym and confiscated all their mobile phones under threat of death, and ordered everyone to speak in Russian and only when spoken to. When a father named Ruslan Betrozov stood to calm people and repeat the rules in the local language, Ossetic, a gunman approached him, asked Betrozov if he was done, and then shot him in the head. Another father named Vadim Bolloyev, who refused to kneel, was also shot by a captor and then bled to death. Their bodies were dragged from the sports hall, leaving a trail of blood later visible in the video made by the hostage-takers.
After gathering the hostages in the gym, the attackers singled out 15–20 of whom they thought were the strongest adults among the male teachers, school employees, and fathers, and took them into a corridor next to the cafeteria on the second floor, where a deadly blast soon took place. An explosive belt on one of the female bombers detonated, killing another female bomber (it was also claimed the second woman died from a bullet wound) and several of the selected hostages, as well as mortally injuring one male hostage-taker. According to the version presented by the surviving hostage-taker, the blast was actually triggered by the “Polkovnik” (the group leader); he set off the bomb by remote control to kill those who openly disagreed about the child hostages and intimidate other possible dissenters. The hostages from this group who were still alive were then ordered to lie down and shot with an automatic rifle by another gunman; all but one of them were killed. Karen Mdinaradze, the Alania football team’s cameraman, survived the explosion as well as the shooting; when discovered to be still alive, he was allowed to return to the sports hall, where he lost consciousness. The militants then forced other hostages to throw the bodies out of the building and to wash the blood off the floor. One of these hostages, Aslan Kudzayev, escaped by jumping out the window; the authorities briefly detained him as a suspected hostage-taker.
Beginning of the siege
A security cordon was soon established around the school, consisting of the Russian police (militsiya), Internal Troops, and Russian Army forces; spetsnaz, including the elite Alpha and Vega units of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB); and the OMON special units of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). A line of three apartment buildings facing the school gym was evacuated and taken over by the special forces. The perimeter they made was within 225 metres (738 ft) of the school, inside the range of the militants’ grenade launchers. No fire-fighting equipment was in position and, despite the previous experiences of the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, there were few ambulances ready. The chaos was worsened by the presence of Ossetian volunteer militiamen (opolchentsy) and armed civilians among the crowds of relatives who had gathered at the scene; there were perhaps as many as 5,000 of them.
The attackers mined the gym and the rest of the building with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and surrounded it with tripwires. In a further bid to deter rescue attempts, they threatened to kill 50 hostages for every one of their own members killed by the police, and to kill 20 hostages for every gunman injured. They also threatened to blow up the school if government forces attacked. To avoid being overwhelmed by gas attack like their comrades in the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, insurgents quickly smashed the school’s windows. The captors prevented hostages from eating and drinking (calling this a “hunger strike”, which they said they joined too) until North Ossetia’s President Alexander Dzasokhov would arrive to negotiate with them. However, the FSB set up their own crisis headquarters from which Dzasokhov was excluded, and threatened to arrest him if he tried to go to the school.
The Russian government announced that it would not use force to rescue the hostages, and negotiations towards a peaceful resolution took place on the first and second days, at first led by Leonid Roshal, a paediatrician whom the hostage-takers had reportedly asked for by name (Roshal had helped negotiate the release of children in the 2002 Moscow siege, but also had given advice to the Russian security services as they prepared to storm the theatre, for which he received the Hero of Russia award). However, a witness statement in the court indicated that the Russian negotiators confused Roshal with Vladimir Rushailo, a Russian security official. According to Savelyev’s report, the official (“civilian”) headquarters was looking for a peaceful resolution of the situation at the same time when the secret (“heavy”) headquarters set up by the FSB was preparing the assault. Savelyev wrote that in many ways the “heavies” restricted the actions of the “civilians”, in particular in their attempts to negotiate with the militants.
At Russia’s request, a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council was convened on the evening of 1 September, at which the council members demanded “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages of the terrorist attack”. U.S. President George W. Bush made a statement offering “support in any form” to Russia.
– Day two
On 2 September 2004, negotiations between Roshal and the hostage-takers proved unsuccessful, and they refused to allow food, water, or medicine to be taken in for the hostages, or for the dead bodies to be removed from the front of the school. At noon, FSB First Deputy Director, Colonel General Vladimir Pronichev showed Dzasokhov a decree signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov appointing North Ossetian FSB chief Major General Valery Andreyev as head of the operational headquarters. In April 2005, however, a Moscow News journalist received photocopies of the interview protocols of Dzasokhov and Andreyev by investigators, revealing that two headquarters had been formed in Beslan: a formal one, upon which was laid all responsibility, and a secret one (“heavies”), which made the real decisions, and at which Andreyev had never been in charge.
The Russian government downplayed the numbers, repeatedly stating there were only 354 hostages; this reportedly angered the hostage-takers who further mistreated their captives. Several officials also said there appeared to be only 15 to 20 militants in the school. The crisis was met with a near-total silence from then-President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the rest of Russia’s political leaders. Only on the second day did Putin make his first public comment on the siege during a meeting in Moscow with King Abdullah II of Jordan: “Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task.” It was the only public statement by Putin about the crisis until one day after its bloody end. In protest, several people at the scene raised signs reading: “Putin! Release our children! Meet their demands!” and “Putin! There are at least 800 hostages!” The locals also said they would not allow any storming or “poisoning of their children” (an allusion to the Moscow hostage crisis chemical agent).
In the afternoon, the gunmen allowed Ruslan Aushev, respected ex-President of Ingushetia and retired Soviet Army general, to enter the school building and agreed to release 11 nursing women and all 15 babies personally to him. The women’s older children were left behind and one mother refused to leave, so Aushev carried out her child instead. The rebels gave Aushev a video tape made in the school and a note with demands from their purported leader, Shamil Basayev, who was not himself present in Beslan. The existence of the note was kept secret by the Russian authorities, while the tape was declared as being empty (which was later proved incorrect). It was falsely announced that the hostage-takers made no demands. In the note, Basayev demanded recognition of a “formal independence for Chechnya” in the frame of the Commonwealth of Independent States. He also said that although the Chechen separatists “had played no part” in the Russian apartment bombings of 1999, they would now publicly take responsibility for them if needed. Some Russian officials and state-controlled media later attacked Aushev for entering the school, accusing him of colluding with the hostage-takers.
The lack of food and water took its toll on the young children, many of whom were forced to stand for long periods in the hot, tightly packed gym. Many children took off their clothing because of the sweltering heat within the gymnasium, which led to rumours of sexual impropriety, though the hostages later explained it was merely due to the stifling heat and being denied any water. Many children fainted, and parents feared they would die. Some hostages drank their own urine. Occasionally, the militants (many of whom took off their masks) took out some of the unconscious children and poured water on their heads before returning them to the sports hall. Later in the day, some adults also started to faint from fatigue and thirst. Because of the conditions in the gym, when the explosion and gun battle began on the third day, many of the surviving children were so fatigued that they were barely able to flee from the carnage.
At around 15:30, two grenades were detonated approximately ten minutes apart by the militants at security forces outside the school, setting a police car on fire and injuring one officer, but Russian forces did not return fire. As the day and night wore on, the combination of stress and sleep deprivation—and possibly drug withdrawal—made the hostage-takers increasingly hysterical and unpredictable. The crying of the children irritated them, and on several occasions crying children and their mothers were threatened with being shot if they would not stop crying. Russian authorities claimed that the hostage-takers had “listened to German heavy metal group Rammstein on personal stereos during the siege to keep themselves edgy and fired up” (Rammstein had previously come under fire following the Columbine High School massacre, and again in 2007 after the Jokela High School shooting).
Overnight, a police officer was injured by shots fired from the school. Talks were broken off, resuming the next day.
– Day Three
Early on the third day, Ruslan Aushev, Alexander Dzasokhov, Taymuraz Mansurov (North Ossetia’s Parliament Chairman), and First Deputy Chairman Izrail Totoonti together made contact with President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov. Totoonti said that both Maskhadov and his Western-based emissary Akhmed Zakayev declared they were ready to fly to Beslan to negotiate with the militants, which was later confirmed by Zakayev. Totoonti said that Maskhadov’s sole demand was his unhindered passage to the school; however, the assault began one hour after the agreement on his arrival was made. He also mentioned that journalists from Al Jazeera television offered for three days to participate in the negotiations and enter the school even as hostages, “but their services were not needed by anyone.”
Russian presidential advisor and former police general, an ethnic Chechen Aslambek Aslakhanov, was also said to be close to breakthrough in the secret negotiations. By the time he left Moscow on the second day, Aslakhanov had accumulated the names of more than 700 well-known Russian figures who were volunteering to enter the school as hostages in exchange for the release of children. Aslakhanov said the hostage-takers agreed to allow him to enter the school the next day at 15:00. However, the storming had begun two hours before.
The first explosions and the fire in the gymnasium
Around 13:00 on 3 September 2004, it was agreed to allow four Ministry of Emergency Situations medical workers in two ambulances to remove 20 bodies from the school grounds, as well as to bring the corpse of the killed terrorist to the school. However, at 13:03, when the paramedics approached the school, an explosion was heard from the gymnasium. The hostage-takers then opened fire on them, killing two. The other two took cover behind their vehicle.
The second, “strange-sounding”, explosion was heard 22 seconds later. At 13:05 the fire on the roof of the sports hall started and soon the burning rafters and roofing fell onto the hostages below, many of them injured but still living. Eventually, the entire roof collapsed, turning the room into an inferno. The flames reportedly killed some 160 people (more than half of all hostage fatalities).
There are several widely conflicting versions regarding the source and nature of the explosions:
Most evidence points towards a theory presented in August 2006 by State Duma member Yuri Savelyev, a weapons and explosives expert. Savelyev claimed that the exchange of gunfire was not begun by explosions within the school building but by two shots fired from outside the school and that most of the home-made explosive devices installed by the rebels did not explode at all. He says the first shot was fired most likely from an RPO-A Shmel infantry rocket located at the roof of nearby five-story House No. 37 in School Lane and aimed at the gymnasium’s attic, while the second one fired from an RPG-27 grenade launcher located at the House No. 41 on the same street, destroying a fragment of the gym wall (empty shells and launchers supporting this theory were found at roofs of these houses and alternative weapons mentioned in the report were RPG-26 or RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades). Savelyev, a dissenting member of the federal Torshin commission (see below for the findings of Torshin), claims these explosions killed many of the hostages and that dozens more died in the resulting fire. Yuri Ivanov, another parliamentary investigator, further contended that the grenades were fired on the direct orders of President Putin. Several witnesses during the trial of Kulayev previously testified that the initial explosions were caused by projectiles fired from outside.
Theory voiced, among others, by Aslambek Aslakhanov and Ruslan Aushev claims that the cause of the firing and the subsequent storming of the school had been an accidental explosion.
According to the early official version, one of the bombs had been insecurely attached with adhesive tape, falling and then exploding. However, no one is reported to have seen this happen. Aushev said that an initial explosion was set off by a hostage-taker accidentally tripping over a wire. As a result, armed civilians, some of them apparently fathers of the hostages, started shooting. Aushev said no security forces or captors were shooting at this point, but the gunfire led the militants to believe that the school was being stormed. In a similar version, Igor Senin, president of the association of Alfa veterans, said that somebody in the school building set off a hand grenade, probably by accident, after which the militants decided they were being attacked and opened fire.
According to the December 2005 report by Stanislav Kesayev, deputy speaker of North Ossetian parliament, some witnesses said a federal forces sniper shot a militant whose foot was on a dead man’s switch detonator, triggering the first blast. The captured hostage-taker, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, has testified to this, while a local policewoman and hostage named Fatima Dudiyeva said she was shot in the hand “from outside” just before the explosion. Kesayev’s commission actually rejected the sniper shot theory, and said there were three blasts: two small explosions at 13:03, followed by the big one at 13:29.
In the current officially approved version, Alexander Torshin, head of the Russian parliamentary commission which concluded its work in December 2006, said the militants had started the battle by intentionally detonating bombs among the hostages, to the surprise of Russian negotiators and commanders. That statement went beyond previous government accounts, which have typically said the bombs exploded in an unexplained accident. Torshin’s 2006 report says the hostage taking was planned as a suicide attack from the beginning and that no storming of the building was prepared in advance. The 2005 court ruling in Kulayev’s case also determined that the explosion was set off by the militants. However, according to the testimonies by Nur-Pashi Kulayev and several former hostages and negotiators, the hostage-takers (including their leaders) blamed the government for the ensuing explosions.
Storming by Russian forces
Part of the sports hall wall was demolished by the explosions, allowing some hostages to escape. Local militia opened fire, and the militants returned fire. A number of people were killed in the crossfire. Russian officials say militants shot hostages as they ran, and the military fired back. The government asserts that once the shooting started, troops had no choice but to storm the building. However, some accounts from the town’s residents have contradicted that official version of events.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Elbrus Nogayev, whose wife and daughter died in the school, said, “I heard a command saying, ‘Stop shooting! Stop shooting!’ while other troops’ radios said, ‘Attack!'” As the fighting began, an oil company president and negotiator Mikhail Gutseriyev (an ethnic Ingush) phoned the hostage-takers; he heard “You tricked us!” in answer. Five hours later, Gutseriyev and his interlocutor reportedly had their last conversation, during which the man said, “The blame is yours and the Kremlin’s.”
According to Torshin, the order to start the operation was given by the head of the North Ossetian FSB Valery Andreyev. However, statements by both Andreyev and the Dzasokhov indicated that it was FSB deputy directors Vladimir Pronichev and Vladimir Anisimov who were actually in charge of the Beslan operation. General Andreyev also told North Ossetia’s Supreme Court that the decision to use heavy weapons during the assault was made by the head of the FSB’s Special Operations Center, Colonel General Aleksandr Tikhonov.
A chaotic battle broke out as the special forces fought to enter the school. The forces included the assault groups of the FSB and the associated troops of the Russian Army and the Russian Interior Ministry, supported by a number of T-72 tanks from Russia’s 58th Army (commandeered by Tikhonov from the military on 2 September), BTR-80 wheeled armoured personnel carriers and armed helicopters, including at least one Mi-24 attack helicopter. Many local civilians also joined in the chaotic battle, having brought along their own weapons – at least one of the armed volunteers is known to have been killed. At the same time, regular conscripted soldiers reportedly fled the scene as the fighting began. Civilian witnesses claimed that the local police also had panicked, even firing in the wrong direction.
At least three but as many as nine powerful Shmel rockets were fired at the school from the positions of the special forces (three or nine empty disposable tubes were later found on the rooftops of nearby apartment blocks). The use of the Shmel rockets, classified in Russia as flamethrowers and in the West as thermobaric weapons, was initially denied, but later admitted by the government. A report by an aide to the military prosecutor of the North Ossetian garrison stated that RPG-26 rocket-propelled grenades were used as well. The rebels also used grenade launchers, firing at the Russian positions in the apartment buildings.
According to military prosecutor, a BTR armoured vehicle drove close to the school and opened fire from its 14.5×114mm KPV heavy machine gun at the windows on the second floor. Eyewitnesses (among them Totoonti and Kesayev) and journalists saw two T-72 tanks advance on the school that afternoon, at least one of which fired its 125 mm main gun several times. During the later trial, tank commander Viktor Kindeyev testified to having fired “one blank shot and six antipersonnel-high explosive shells” on orders from the FSB. The use of tanks and armoured personnel carriers was eventually admitted to by Lieutenant General Viktor Sobolev, commander of the 58th Army. Another witness cited in the Kesayev report claims that he had jumped onto the turret of a tank in an attempt to prevent it from firing on the school. Scores of hostages were moved by the militants from the burning sports hall into the other parts of the school, in particular the cafeteria, where they were forced to stand at windows. Many of them were shot by troops outside as they were used as human shields, according to the survivors (such as Kudzeyeva, Kusrayeva and Naldikoyeva). Savelyev estimated that 106 to 110 hostages died after being moved to the cafeteria.
By 15:00, two hours after the assault began, Russian troops claimed control of most of the school. However, fighting was still continuing on the grounds as evening fell, including resistance from a group of militants holding out in the school’s basement. During the battle, a group of some 13 militants broke through the military cordon and took refuge nearby. Several of them were believed to have entered a nearby two-story building, which was destroyed by tanks and flamethrowers around 21:00, according to the Ossetian committee’s findings (Kesayev Report). Another group of militants appeared to head back over the railway, chased by helicopters into the town.
Firefighters, who were called by Andreyev two hours after the fire started, were not prepared to battle the blaze that raged in the gymnasium. One fire truck crew arrived after two hours at their own initiative but with only 200 litres of water and unable to connect to the nearby hydrants. The first water came at 15:28, nearly two and a half hours after the start of the fire; the second fire engine arrived at 15:43. Few ambulances were available to transport the hundreds of injured victims, who were mostly driven to hospital in private cars. One suspected militant was lynched on the scene by a mob of civilians, an event filmed by the Sky News crew, while an unarmed militant was captured alive by the OMON troops while trying to hide under their truck (he was later identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev). Some of the dead insurgents appeared to be mutilated by the commandos.
Sporadic explosions and gunfire continued at night despite reports that all resistance by militants had been suppressed, until some 12 hours after the first explosions. Early the next day Putin ordered the borders of North Ossetia closed while some hostage-takers were apparently still pursued.
After the conclusion of the crisis, many of the injured died in the only hospital in Beslan, which was highly unprepared to cope with the casualties, before the patients were sent to better-equipped facilities in Vladikavkaz. There was an inadequate supply of hospital beds, medication, and neurosurgery equipment. Relatives were not allowed to visit hospitals where the wounded were treated, and doctors were not allowed to use their mobile phones.
The day after the storming, bulldozers gathered the debris of the building, including the body parts of the victims, and removed it to a garbage dump. The first of the many funerals were conducted on 4 September, the day after the final assault, with more following soon after, including mass burials of 120 people. The local cemetery was too small and had to be expanded to an adjacent plot of land to accommodate the dead. Three days after the siege, 180 people were still missing. Many survivors remained severely traumatized and at least one female former hostage committed suicide after returning home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reappeared publicly during a hurried trip to the Beslan hospital in the early hours of 4 September to see several of the wounded victims in his only visit to Beslan. He was later criticised for not meeting the families of victims. After returning to Moscow, he ordered a two-day period of national mourning on 6 – 7 September 2004. In his televised speech Putin paraphrased Joseph Stalin saying: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” On the second day of mourning, an estimated 135,000 people joined a government-organised rally against terrorism on the Red Square in Moscow. An estimated 40,000 people gathered in Saint Petersburg’s Palace Square.
Increased security measures were introduced to Russian cities. More than 10,000 people without proper documents were detained by Moscow police in a “terrorist hunt”. Colonel Magomed Tolboyev, a cosmonaut and Hero of the Russian Federation, was attacked by Moscow police patrol and beaten because of his Chechen-sounding name. The Russian public appeared to be generally supportive of increased security measures. A 16 September 2004 Levada-Center opinion poll found 58% of Russians supporting stricter counter-terrorism laws and the death penalty for terrorism, while 33% would support banning all Chechens from entering Russian cities.
– Long-term effects
In the wake of Beslan, the government proceeded to toughen laws on terrorism and expand the powers of law enforcement agencies.
In addition, Vladimir Putin signed a law which replaced the direct election of the heads of the federal subjects of Russia with a system whereby they are proposed by the President of Russia and approved or disapproved by the elected legislative bodies of the federal subjects. The election system for the Russian parliament was also repeatedly amended, eliminating the election of State Duma members by single-mandate districts. The Kremlin consolidated its control over the Russian media and increasingly attacked the non-governmental organizations (especially those foreign-founded).
The raid on Beslan had more to do with the Ingush involved than the Chechens, but was highly symbolic for both nations. The Ossetes and Ingush had (and have) a conflict over ownership of the Prigorodny District, which hit high points during the 1944 Stalinist purges, and the ethnic cleansing of Ingush by Ossetes (the Ossetes getting assistance from the Russian military) in 1992-3. At the time of the raid, there were still over 40,000 Ingush refugees in tent camps in Ingushetia and Chechnya. The Beslan school itself had been used against the Ingush, as in 1992 the gym was used as a pen to round up Ingush during the ethnic cleansing by the Ossetes. For the Chechens, the motive was revenge for the destruction of their homes and, indeed families: Beslan was one of the sites from which federal air raids were launched at Chechnya.
Once, however, it was broadcast that there were large numbers of children killed by a group that included Chechens, the Chechens were struck with a large amount of shame. One spokesman for the Chechen independence cause stated, “Such a bigger blow could not be dealt upon us…People around the world will think that Chechens are monsters if they could attack children”.
Initially, at least 396 people, mostly hostages, were reportedly killed during the crisis. By 7 September 2004, Russian officials revised the death toll to 334, including 186 children, although close to 200 people remained missing or unidentified. It was claimed by the locals that over 200 of those killed were found with burns, and 100 or more of them were burned alive. The last reported fatality was 33-year-old librarian Yelena Avdonina, who succumbed to her wounds on 8 December 2006.
Russia’s Minister of Health and Social Reform Mikhail Zurabov said the total number of people who were injured in the crisis exceeded 1,200. The exact number of people who received ambulatory assistance immediately after the crisis is not known, but is estimated to be around 700 (753 according to the UN). Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer concluded on 7 September 2004 that 90% of the surviving hostages had sustained injuries. At least 437 people, including 221 children, were hospitalized; 197 children were taken to the Children’s Republican Clinical Hospital in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, and 30 were in cardiopulmonary resuscitation units in critical condition. Another 150 people were transferred to the Vladikavkaz Emergency Hospital. Sixty-two people, including 12 children, were treated in two local hospitals in Beslan, while 6 children with severe injuries were flown to Moscow for specialist treatment. The majority of the children were treated for burns, gunshot injuries, shrapnel wounds, and mutilation caused by explosions. Some had to have limbs amputated and eyes removed and many children were permanently disabled. One month after the attack, 240 people (160 of them children) were still being treated in hospitals in Vladikavkaz and in Beslan. Surviving children and parents have received psychological treatment at Vladikavkaz Rehabilitation Centre.
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One of the hostages, a physical education teacher called Yanis Kanidis (a Caucasus Greek, originally from Georgia) who was killed in the siege saved the lives of many children. One of the new schools built in Beslan was subsequently named in his honour.
It is not known how many members of Russia’s elite special forces died in the fighting, as official figures ranged from 11 through 12 and 16 (7 Alpha and 9 Vega) to more than 20 killed. There are only 10 names on the special forces monument in Beslan. The fatalities included all three commanders of the assault group: Colonel Oleg Ilyin, Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Razumovsky of Vega, and Major Alexander Perov of Alpha. At least 30 commandos suffered serious wounds.
Identity of hostage-takers, motives and responsibility
Initially, the identity and origin of the attackers were not clear. It was widely assumed from day two that they were separatists from nearby Chechnya, even as Putin’s presidential Chechen aide Aslambek Aslakhanov denied it, saying “they were not Chechens. When I started talking with them in Chechen, they had answered: ‘We do not understand, speak Russian.'” Freed hostages said that the hostage-takers spoke Russian with accents typical of Caucasians.
Even though in the past Putin had rarely hesitated to blame the Chechen separatists for acts of terrorism, this time he avoided linking the attack with the Second Chechen War. Instead, he blamed the crisis on the “direct intervention of international terrorism”, ignoring the nationalist roots of the crisis. The Russian government sources initially claimed that nine of the militants in Beslan were Arabs and one was a black African (called “a negro” by Andreyev), though only two Arabs were identified later. Independent analysts such as that of the Moscow political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky said Putin at this moment tried to minimize the number and scale of Chechen terrorist attacks, rather than to exaggerate them as he did in the past. Putin appeared to connect the events to the US-led “War on Terrorism”, but at the same time accused the West of indulging terrorists.
On 17 September 2004, radical Chechen guerilla commander Shamil Basayev, at this time operating autonomously from the rest of the North Caucasian rebel movement, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the Beslan school siege, which was strikingly similar to the Chechen raid on Budyonnovsk in 1995 and the Moscow theatre crisis in 2002, incidents in which hundreds of Russian civilians were held hostage by the Chechen rebels led by Basayev. Basayev said his Riyadus-Salikhin “martyr battalion” had carried out the attack and also claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist bombings in Russia in the weeks before Beslan crisis. He said that he originally planned to seize at least one school in either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but lack of funds forced him to pick North Ossetia, “the Russian garrison in the North Caucasus”. Basayev blamed the Russian authorities for “a terrible tragedy” in Beslan. Basayev claimed that he had miscalculated the Kremlin’s determination to end the crisis by all means possible. He said he was “cruelly mistaken” and that he was “not delighted by what happened there”, but also added to be “planning more Beslan-type operations in the future because we are forced to do so.” However, it was the last major act of terrorism in Russia until 2009, as Basayev was soon persuaded to give up indiscriminate attacks by the new rebel leader Abdul-Halim Sadulayev, who made Basayev his second-in-command but banned hostage taking, kidnapping for ransom, and operations specifically targeting civilians.
The Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov immediately denied that his forces were involved in the siege, calling it “a blasphemy” for which “there is no justification”. Maskhadov described the perpetrators of Beslan as “madmen” driven out of their senses by Russian acts of brutality. He condemned the action and all attacks against civilians via a statement issued by his envoy Akhmed Zakayev in London, blamed it on what he called a radical local group, and agreed to the North Ossetian proposition to act as a negotiator. Later, he also called on western governments to initiate peace talks between Russia and Chechnya and added to “categorically refute all accusations by the Russian government that President Maskhadov had any involvement in the Beslan event.” Putin responded that he would not to negotiate with “child-killers”, comparing the calls for negotiations with the appeasement of Hitler, and put a $10 million bounty on Maskhadov (the same amount as put for Basayev). Maskhadov was killed by Russian commandos in Chechnya on 8 March 2005, and buried at an undisclosed location.
Shortly after the crisis, official Russian sources stated that the attackers were part of a supposed international group led by Basayev that included a number of Arabs with connections to al-Qaeda, and claimed they picked up phone calls in Arabic from the Beslan school to Saudi Arabia and another undisclosed Middle Eastern country. Two English/Algerians are among the identified rebels who actively participated in the attack: Osman Larussi and Yacine Benalia. Another UK citizen named Kamel Rabat Bouralha, arrested while trying to leave Russia immediately following the attack, was suspected to be a key organizer. All three were linked to the Finsbury Park Mosque of north London. The allegations of al-Qaeda involvement were not repeated since then by the Russian government.
The following people were named by the Russian government as planners and financiers of the attack:
Shamil Basayev – Chechen rebel leader who took ultimate responsibility for the attack. He died in Ingushetia in July 2006 in disputed circumstances.
Kamel Rabat Bouralha – British-Algerian suspected of organizing the attack, who was reportedly detained in Chechnya in September 2004.
Abu Omar al-Saif – Saudi national and accused financer, killed in Dagestan in December 2005.
Abu Zaid Al-Kuwaiti – Kuwaiti and accused organizer, who died in Ingushetia in February 2005.
In November 2004, 28-year-old Akhmed Merzhoyev and 16-year-old Marina Korigova of Sagopshi, Ingushetia, were arrested by the Russian authorities in connection with Beslan. Merzhoyev was charged with providing food and equipment to the hostage-takers, and Korigova with having possession of a phone that Tsechoyev had phoned multiple times. Korigova was released when her defence attorney showed that she was given the phone by an acquaintance after the crisis.
– Motives and demands
Russian negotiators say the Beslan militants never explicitly stated their demands, although they did have notes handwritten by one of the hostages on a school notebook, in which they spelled out demands of full Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya and recognition of Chechen independence.
The hostage-takers were reported to have made the following demands:
Recognition of the independence of Chechnya at the UN and withdrawal of Russian troops
Presence of the following people at the school: Aleksander Dzasokhov (president of North Ossetia), Murat Zyazikov (president of Ingushetia), Ruslan Aushev (former president of Ingushetia), Leonid Roshal (a paediatrician). Alternatively, instead of Roshal and Aushev, the hostage-takers might have named Vladimir Rushailo and Alu Alkhanov (pro-Moscow President of Chechnya).
Dzasokhov and Zyazikov did not come to Beslan (Dzasokhov later claimed that he was forcibly stopped by “a very high-ranking general from the Interior Ministry said, ‘I have received orders to arrest you if you try to go'”). The stated reason why Zyazikov did not arrive was that he has been “sick”. Aushev, Zyazikov’s predecessor at the post of Ingushetia’s president (he was forced to resign by Putin in 2002), entered the school and secured the release of 26 hostages.
Aslakhanov said that the hostage-takers also demanded the release of some 28 to 30 suspects detained in the crackdown following the rebel raids in Ingushetia earlier in June.
The 1 September 11:00–11:30 letter sent along with a hostage ER doctor: (The case papers of the Nur-Pashi Kulayev’s criminal trial. File pages 196–198, the vetting protocol. Cited at the trial session 19 January 2006.)
We request the republic’s president Dzasokhov, the president of Ingushetia Ziazikov, the children’s doctor Rashailo for negotiations. If anyone of us is killed, we’ll shoot 50 people. If anyone of us is wounded, we’ll kill 20 people. If 5 of us are killed, we’ll blow up everything. If the light, communication are cut off for a minute, we’ll shoot 10 people.
The telephone number according to pravdabeslana.ru; the federal committee reported 8–928–728–33–74. The hostage who was made to write the note misspelled doctor Roshal’s name.
The 1 September 16:00–16:30 letter brought by the same female hostage contained a corrected phone number (ending with 47) and addition of Aushev to the list of requested persons, according to the federal committee report.
The 2 September 16:45 letter sent along with Ruslan Aushev: (A note hand-written on a quad ruling notebook sheet sized 32 by 20 cm. Source: ibidem. Pages 189–192, the vetting protocol. Pages 193–194, a photocopy of this note.)
From Allah’s slave Shamil Basayev to President Putin.
Vladimir Putin, it was not you who started this war. But you can finish it if you have enough courage and determination of de Gaulle. We offer you a sensible peace based on mutual benefit by the principle independence in exchange for security. In case of troops withdrawal and acknowledgement of independence of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, we are obliged not to make any political, military, or economic treaties with anyone against Russia, not to accommodate foreign military bases on our territory even temporarily, not to support and not to finance groups or organizations carrying out a military struggle against RF, to be present in the united ruble zone, to enter CIS. Besides, we can sign a treaty even though a neutral state status is more acceptable to us. We can also guarantee a renunciation of armed struggle against RF by all Muslims of Russia for at least 10 to 15 years under condition of freedom of faith. We are not related to the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, but we can take responsibility for this in an acceptable way.
The Chechen people is leading a nation-liberating struggle for its freedom and independence, for its self-protection rather than for destruction or humiliation of Russia. We offer you peace, but the choice is yours.
Later, Basayev said there was also an alternative option: if President Putin submitted a letter of resignation, the hostage-takers would “release all the children and go back to Chechnya with others.”
According to the official version of events, 32 militants participated directly in the seizure, one of whom was taken alive while the rest were killed on spot. The number and identity of hostage-takers remains a controversial topic, fuelled by the often contradictory government statements and official documents. The 3–4 September government statements said total of 26–27 militants were killed during the siege. At least four militants, including two women, died prior to the Russian storming of the school.
Many of the surviving hostages and eyewitnesses claim there were many more captors, some of whom may have escaped. It was also initially claimed that three hostage-takers were captured alive, including their leader Vladimir Khodov and a female militant. Witness testimonies during the Kulayev trial involved the reported presence of a number of apparently Slavic-, unaccented Russian-, and “perfect” Ossetian-speaking individuals among the hostage-takers who were not seen among the bodies of the militants killed during the assault by Russian security forces; witnesses also said they were not seen by the day of the crisis at all. The unknown men (and a woman, according to one testimony) included a man with red beard who was reportedly issuing orders to the kidnappers’ leaders, and whom the hostages were forbidden to look at. He was possibly the militant known only as “Fantomas”, an ethnic Russian who served as a bodyguard to Shamil Basayev).
The Kesayev Report (2005) estimated that about 50 rebel fighters took part in the siege, based on witness accounts and the number of weapons left at the scene.
The Savelyev Report (September 2006) said there were from 58 to 76 hostage-takers, of which many managed to escape by slipping past the cordon around the school.
The Torshin Report (December 2006) determined that 34 militants were involved, of which 32 entered the school and 31 died there, and says the two accomplices remain at large (one being Yunus Matsiyev, a bodyguard of Basayev).
According to Basayev, “Thirty-three mujahideen took part in Nord-West. Two of them were women. We prepared four women but I sent two of them to Moscow on August 24. They then boarded the two airplanes that blew up. In the group there were 12 Chechen men, two Chechen women, nine Ingush, three Russians, two Arabs, two Ossetians, one Tartar, one Kabardinian and one Guran. The Gurans are a people who live near Lake Baikal who are practically russified.”
Basayev further said an FSB agent (Khodov) had been sent undercover to the rebels to persuade them to carry out an attack on a target in North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, and that the group was allowed to enter the region with ease because the FSB planned to capture them at their destination in Vladikavkaz. He also claimed that an unnamed hostage-taker had survived the siege and managed to escape.
On 6 September 2004, the names and identities of seven of the assailants became known, after forensic work over the weekend and interviews with surviving hostages and a captured assailant. The forensic tests also established that 21 of the hostage-takers took heroin, Methamphetamine as well as morphine in a normally lethal amount; the investigation cited the use of drugs as a reason for the militants’ ability to continue fighting despite being badly wounded and presumably in great pain. In November 2004, Russian officials announced that 27 of the 32 hostage-takers had been identified. However, in September 2005, the lead prosecutor against Nur-Pashi Kulayev stated that only 22 of the 32 bodies of the captors had been identified, leading to further confusion over which identities have been confirmed.
Most of the suspects, aged 20–35, were identified as Ingush or residents of Ingushetia (some of them Chechen refugees). At least five of the suspected hostage-takers were declared dead by Russian authorities before the seizure, while eight were known to have been previously arrested and then released, in some cases shortly before the Beslan attack.
The male hostage-takers were tentatively identified by the Russian government as:
Ruslan Tagirovich Khuchbarov (32), nicknamed “Polkovnik” (Russian for “Colonel”) – An ethnic Ingush and native of Galashki, Ingushetia. Reputed group leader, disputed identity, possibly escaped and at large. Basayev identified him as “Col. Orstkhoyev”. Reportedly referred to by the other militants also as “Ali”, he led the negotiations on behalf of the hostage-takers. Initially reported to be Ali Taziyev, an Ingush policeman-turned-rebel who was declared legally dead in 2000; but this was later refuted by the Russian prosecutors. During the negotiations, “Ali” had claimed his family was killed by the Russians in Chechnya. Investigators thought him to be Akhmed Yevloyev (“Magas”), an Ingush rebel leader also known as Ali Taziyev, but those reports were also declared incorrect later. “Magas” was captured by the FSB in 2010.
Vladimir Anatolievich Khodov (28), nicknamed “Abdullah” – An ethnic Ossetian-Ukrainian from the village of Elkhotovo in Kirovsky District of North Ossetia, Khodov was former pupil of the Beslan SNO and one of the reputed leaders of the hostage-takers. Some of the survivors described him as the most frightening and aggressive of all the militants. Khodov converted to Islam while in prison for rape. He was officially wanted for a series of bomb attacks in Vladikavkaz, yet he lived openly in his hometown for over a month before the attack. Basayev claimed that Khodov was a FSB double agent code-named “Putnik” (“Traveller”), sent to infiltrate the rebel movement.
Iznaur Kodzoyev – An Ingush from Kantyshevo, Ingushetia, and father of five children. His cousin claimed he saw him in their home village on the second day of the siege. In August 2005 the Russian forces in Igushetia killed a man identified as Iznaur Kodzoyev, who they said was one of hostage-takers, despite the fact that his body was identified among these killed in Beslan. Kodzoyev had been also previously announced by the Russians to be killed months before the Beslan crisis.
Khizir-Ali Akhmedov (30) – Native of Bilto-Yurt, Chechnya.
Rustam Atayev (25) – An ethnic Chechen native to Psedkah, Ingushetia. His 12-year-old younger brother and two other boys were murdered in 2002 in Grozny by unidentified men in camouflage.
Rizvan Vakhitovich Barchashvili (26) – Native of Nesterovskaya, a Cossack village in Ingushetia. Had changed his name to Aldzbekov. His body was identified by DNA testing.
Usman Magomedovich Aushev (33) – An Ingush from Ekazhevo, Ingushetia.
Yacine Benalia (35) – A British-Algerian who had reportedly been killed earlier.
Osman Larussi (35) – A British-Algerian, who had reportedly been killed already.
Adam Magomed-Khasanovich Iliyev (20) – An Ingush from Malgobek, Ingushetia. Iliyev was arrested a year before for illegal arms possession and then released.
Ibragim Magomedovich Dzortov (28) – An Ingush from Nazran, Ingushetia.
Ilnur Gainullin (23) – An ethnic Tatar and medical school graduate “from a good family” in Moscow.
Aslangirey Beksultanovich Gatagazhev (29) – An Ingush from Sagopshi, Ingushetia.
Sultan Kamurzoyev (27) – A Chechen from Kazakhstan. Other sources say he’s from Nazran, Ingushetia, and that he was arrested as a rebel fighter in Chechnya in 2000.
Magomed Khochubarov (21) – An Ingush from Nazran. Native of Surkhakhi, Ingushetia, Khochubarovhad a conviction for the illegal possession of weapons.
Khan-Pashi Kulayev (31) – A Chechen from Engenoi. He had lost his hand in Russian captivity from an untreated wound. Kulayev was the older brother of Nur-Pashi and a former bodyguard of Basayev. He was released from Russian prison before the attack.
Nur-Pashi Kulayev (24) – A Chechen from Engenoi recruited to help his brother Han-Pashi despite (as he maintained) being admitted into pro-Moscow Chechen militia forces of Ramzan Kadyrov (“Kadyrovtsy”). Captured in Beslan and sentenced to life in prison.
Adam Kushtov (17) – An ethnic Ingush who as a child had fled North Ossetia during the ethnic cleansing in 1992.
Abdul-Azim Labazanov (31) – A Chechen born in internal exile in Kazakhstan. He has initially fought on the Russian side in the First Chechen War before defecting to the group of Dokka Umarov.
Arsen Merzhoyev (25) – A native of Engenoi, Chechnya.
Adam Akhmedovich Poshev (22) – An Ingush from Malgobek, Ingushetia.
Mayrbek Said-Aliyevich Shaybekhanov (25) – A Chechen from Engenoi who lived in Psedakh, Ingushetia. He was arrested in Ingushetia and then released shortly before the school attack.
Islam Said-Aliyevich Shaybekhanov (20) – A Chechen from Engenoi who lived in Psedakh, Ingushetia.
Buran Tetradze (31) – Allegedly an ethnic Georgian and native of Rustavi, Georgia. His identity/existence was refuted by Georgia’s security minister.
Issa Torshkhoyev (26) – An Ingush native of Malgobek, Ingushetia. He was wanted since the shootout in 2003 when his home was raided by the police. His family asserted that his interest in joining the Chechen militant movement was incited when Torshkhoyev witnessed five of his close friends being killed by Russian security forces during the same raid. His father, who was brought in to identify his body, reportedly claimed that the body was not that of his son.
Issa Zhumaldinovich Tarshkhoyev (23) – An Ingush from Malgobek, Ingushetia. He was arrested for armed robbery in 1999 but later released.
Bei-Alla Tsechoyev (31) – An Ingush, brother of Musa, had a prior conviction for possessing illegal firearms.
Musa Tsechoyev (35) – An Ingush, brother of Bei-Alla. Native of Sagopshi, Ingushetia, he owned the truck that drove the insurgents to the school.
Timur Magomedovich Tsokiyev (31) – An Ingush from Sagopshi, Ingushetia.
Aslan Akhmedovich Yaryzhev (22) – An Ingush from Malgobek, Ingushetia.
In April 2005, the identity of the shahidka female militants was revealed:
Roza Nagayeva (30) – A Chechen woman from the village of Kirov-Yurt in Chechnya’s Vedensky District and sister of Amnat Nagayeva, who was suspected of being the suicide bomber who blew up one of the two Russian airliners brought down on 24 August 2004. Roza Nagayeva was previously named as having bombed the Rizhskaya metro station in Moscow on 31 August 2004.
Mairam Taburova (27) – A Chechen woman from the village of Mair-Tub in Chechnya’s Shalinsky District.
Khaula Nazirova (45) – A woman from Grozny, whose husband had been tortured to death by Russian forces, and several relatives killed when Russian troops bombed a Chechen school.
Official investigations and trials
– Kulayev’s interrogation and trial
The captured suspect, 24-year-old Nur-Pashi Kulayev, born in Chechnya, was identified by former hostages as one of the hostage-takers. The state-controlled Channel One showed fragments of Kulayev’s interrogation in which he said his group was led by a Chechnya-born man nicknamed Polkovnik and by the North Ossetia native Vladimir Khodov. According to Kulayev, Polkovnik shot another militant and detonated two female suicide bombers because they objected to capturing children.
In May 2005, Kulayev was a defendant in a court in the republic of North Ossetia. He was charged with murder, terrorism, kidnapping, and other crimes and pleaded guilty on seven of the counts; many former hostages denounced the trial as a “smoke screen” and “farce”. Some of the relatives of the victims, who used the trial in their attempts to accuse the authorities, even called for a pardon for Kulayev so he could speak freely about what happened. The director of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, was summoned to give evidence, but he did not attend the trial. Ten days later, on 26 May 2006, Nur-Pashi Kulayev was sentenced to life imprisonment. Kulayev later disappeared in the Russian prison system. Following questions about whether Kulayev had been killed or died in prison, Russian government officials said in 2007 that he was alive and awaiting the start of his sentence.
– Investigation by federal prosecutors
Family members of the victims of the attacks have accused the security forces of incompetence, and have demanded that authorities be held accountable. Putin personally promised to the Mothers of Beslan group to hold an “objective investigation”. On 26 December 2005, Russian prosecutors investigating the siege on the school declared that authorities had made no mistakes whatsoever.
– Torshin’s parliamentary Commission
At a press conference with foreign journalists on 6 September 2004, Vladimir Putin rejected the prospect of an open public inquiry, but cautiously agreed with an idea of a parliamentary investigation led by the State Duma, dominated by the pro-Kremlin parties.
In November 2004, the Interfax news agency reported Alexander Torshin, head of the parliamentary commission, as saying that there was evidence of involvement by “a foreign intelligence agency” (he declined to say which). On 22 December 2006, the Russian parliamentary commission ended their investigation into the incident. Their report concluded that the number of gunmen who stormed the school was 32 and laid much of the blame on the North Ossetian police, stating that there was a severe shortcoming in security measures, but also criticizing authorities for under-reporting the number of hostages involved. In addition, the commission said the attack on the school was premeditated by Chechen rebel leadership, including the moderate leader Aslan Maskhadov. In another controversial move, the commission claimed that the shoot-out that ended the siege was instigated by the hostage-takers, not security forces. About the “grounded” decision to use flamethowers, Torshin said that “international law does not prohibit using them against terrorists.” Ella Kesayeva, an activist who leads a Beslan support group, suggested that the report was meant as a signal that Putin and his circle were no longer interested in having a discussion about the crisis.
On 28 August 2006, Duma member Yuri Savelyev, a member of the federal parliamentary inquiry panel, publicized his own report which he said proves that Russian forces deliberately stormed the school using maximum force. According to Savelyev, a weapons and explosives expert, special forces fired rocket-propelled grenades without warning as a prelude to an armed assault, ignoring apparently ongoing negotiations. In February 2007, two members of the commission (Savelyev and Yuri Ivanov) denounced the investigation as a cover-up, and the Kremlin’s official version of events as fabricated. They refused to sign off on the Torshin’s report.
– Trials of the local police officials
Three local policemen of the Pravoberezhny District ROVD (district militsiya unit) were the only officials put on trial over the massacre. They were charged with negligence in failing to stop gunmen seizing the school. On 30 May 2007, the Pravoberezhny Court’s judge granted an amnesty to them. In response, a group of dozens of local women then rioted and ransacked the courtroom: smashing windows, overturning furniture, and tearing down a Russian flag. Victims’ groups said the trial had been a whitewash designed to protect their superiors from blame. The victims of the siege said they would appeal against the court judgement.
In June 2007, a court in Kabardino-Balkaria charged two Malgobeksky District ROVD police officials, Mukhazhir Yevloyev and Akhmed Kotiyev, with negligence, accusing them of failing to prevent the attackers from setting up their training and staging camp in Ingushetia. The two pleaded innocent, and were acquitted in October 2007. The verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court of Ingushetia in March 2008. The victims said they would appeal the decision to the European Court for Human Rights.
Criticism of the Russian government
– Allegations of incompetence and rights violations
The handling of the siege by Vladimir Putin’s administration was criticized by a number of observers and grassroots organizations, amongst them Mothers of Beslan and Voice of Beslan. Soon after the crisis, the independent MP Vladimir Ryzhkov blamed “the top leadership” of Russia. Initially, the European Union also criticized the response.
Critics, including Beslan residents who survived the attack and relatives of the victims, focused on allegations that the storming of the school was ruthless. They cite the use of heavy weapons, such as tanks and Shmel rocket flamethrowers. Their usage was officially confirmed. The Shmel is a type of thermobaric weapon, described by a source associated with the US military as “just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine – igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.” Pavel Felgenhauer has gone further and accused the government of also firing rockets from an Mi-24 attack helicopter, a claim that the authorities deny. Some human rights activists claim that at least 80% of the hostages were killed by indiscriminate Russian fire. According to Felgenhauer, “It was not a hostage rescue operation… but an army operation aimed at wiping out the terrorists.” David Satter of the Hudson Institute said the incident “presents a chilling portrait of the Russian leadership and its total disregard for human life”.
The provincial government and police were criticised by the locals for having allowed the attack to take place, especially since police roadblocks on the way to Beslan were removed shortly before the attack. Many blamed rampant corruption that allowed the attackers to bribe their way through the checkpoints; in fact, this was even what they had openly boasted to their hostages. Others say the militants took the back roads used by smugglers in collusion with the police. Yulia Latynina alleged that Major Gurazhev was captured after he approached the militants’ truck to demand a bribe for what he thought was an oil-smuggling operation. It was also alleged the federal police knew of the time and place of the planned attack; according to internal police documents obtained by Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow MVD knew about the hostage taking four hours in advance, having learned this from a militant captured in Chechnya. According to Basayev, the road to Beslan was cleared of roadblocks because the FSB planned to ambush the group later, believing the rebels’ aim was to seize the parliament of North Ossetia in Vladikavkaz.
Critics also charged that the authorities did not organize the siege properly, including failing to keep the scene secure from entry by civilians, while the emergency services were not prepared during the 52 hours of the crisis. The Russian government has been also heavily criticized by many of the local people who, days and even months after the siege, did not know whether their children were alive or dead, as the hospitals were isolated from the outside world. Two months after the crisis, human remains and identity documents were found by a local driver, Muran Katsanov, in the garbage landfill at the outskirts of Beslan; the discovery prompted further outrage.
In addition, there were serious accusations that federal officials had not earnestly tried to negotiate with the hostage-takers (including the alleged threat from Moscow to arrest President Dzasokhov if he came to negotiate) and deliberately provided incorrect and inconsistent reports of the situation to the media.
The report by Yuri Savelyev, a dissenting parliamentary investigator and one of Russia’s leading rocket scientists, placed the responsibility for the final massacre on actions of the Russian forces and the highest-placed officials in the federal government. Savelyev’s 2006 report, devoting 280 pages to determining responsibility for the initial blast, concludes that the authorities decided to storm the school building, but wanted to create the impression they were acting in response to actions taken by the terrorists. Savelyev, the only expert on the physics of combustion on the commission, accused Torshin of “deliberate falsification”.
A separate public inquiry by the North Ossetian parliament (headed by Kesayev) concluded on 29 November 2005 that both local and federal law enforcement mishandled the situation.
European Court complaint
On 26 June 2007, 89 relatives of victims lodged a joint complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The applicants say their rights were violated both during the hostage-taking and the trials that followed.
– Alleged threats, disinformation and suppression of information
Russian television reporting and false information
In opposition to the coverage on foreign television news channels (such as CNN and the BBC), the crisis was not broadcast live by the three major state-owned Russian television networks. The two main state-owned broadcasters, Channel One and Rossiya, did not interrupt their regular programming following the school seizure. After explosions and gunfire started on the third day, NTV Russia shifted away from the scenes of mayhem to broadcast a World War II soap opera. According to the Ekho Moskvy (“Echo of Moscow”) radio station, 92% of the people polled said that Russian TV channels concealed parts of information.
Russian state-controlled television only reported official information about the number of hostages during the course of the crisis. The figure of 354 people was persistently given, initially reported by Lev Dzugayev (the press secretary of Dzasokhov) and Valery Andreyev (the chief of the republican FSB). It was later claimed that Dzugayev only disseminated information given to him by “Russian presidential staff who were located in Beslan from September 1”. Torshin laid the blame squarely at Andreyev, for whom he reserved special scorn.
The deliberately false figure had grave consequences for the treatment of the hostages by their angered captors (the hostage-takers were reported saying, “Maybe we should kill enough of you to get down to that number”) and contributed to the declaration of a “hunger strike”. One inquiry has suggested that it may have prompted the militants to kill the group of male hostages shot on the first day. The government disinformation also sparked incidents of violence by the local residents, aware of the real numbers, against the members of Russian and foreign media.
On 8 September 2004, several leading Russian and international human rights organizations – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Memorial, and Moscow Helsinki Group – issued a joint statement in which they pointed out the responsibility that Russian authorities bore in disseminating false information:
“We are also seriously concerned with the fact that authorities concealed the true scale of the crisis by, inter alia, misinforming Russian society about the number of hostages. We call on Russian authorities to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances of the Beslan events which should include an examination of how authorities informed the whole society and the families of the hostages. We call on making the results of such an investigation public.”
The Moscow daily tabloid Moskovskij Komsomolets ran a rubric headlined “Chronicle of Lies”, detailing various initial reports put out by government officials about the hostage taking, which later turned out to be false.
Incidents involving Russian and foreign journalists
The late Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had negotiated during the 2002 Moscow siege, was twice prevented by the authorities from boarding a flight. When she eventually succeeded, she fell into a coma after being poisoned aboard an aeroplane bound to Rostov-on-Don. American journalist Larisa Alexandrovna of The Raw Story has suggested that Politkovskaya might have been later murdered in Moscow because she had discovered evidence of the Russian government’s complicity in Beslan.
According to the report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), several correspondents were detained or otherwise harassed after arriving in Beslan (including Russians Anna Gorbatova and Oksana Semyonova from Novye Izvestia, Madina Shavlokhova from Moskovskij Komsomolets, Elena Milashina from Novaya Gazeta, and Simon Ostrovskiy from The Moscow Times). Several foreign journalists were also briefly detained, including a group of journalists from the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, French Libération, and British The Guardian. Many foreign journalists were exposed to pressure from the security forces and materials were confiscated from TV crews ZDF and ARD (Germany), AP Television News (USA), and Rustavi 2 (Georgia). The crew of Rustavi 2 was arrested; the Georgian Minister of Health said that the correspondent Nana Lezhava, who had been kept for five days in the Russian pre-trial detention centers, had been poisoned with dangerous psychotropic drugs (like Politkovskaya, Lezhava had passed out after being given a cup of tea). The crew from another Georgian TV channel, Mze, was expelled from Beslan.
Raf Shakirov, chief editor of the Russia’s leading newspaper, Izvestia, was forced to resign after criticism by the major shareholders of both style and content of the issue of 4 September 2004. In contrast to the less emotional coverage by other Russian newspapers, Izvestia had featured large pictures of dead or injured hostages. It also expressed doubts about the government’s version of events.
Secret video materials
The video tape made by the hostage-takers and given to Ruslan Aushev on the second day was declared by the officials as being “blank”. Aushev himself did not watch the tape before he handed it to government agents. A fragment of tape shot by the hostage-takers was shown on Russian NTV television several days after the crisis. Another fragment of a tape shot by the hostage-takers was acquired by media and publicised in January 2005.
In July 2007, the Mothers of Beslan asked the FSB to declassify video and audio archives on Beslan, saying there should be no secrets in the investigation. They did not receive any official answer to this request. However, the Mothers received an anonymous video, which they disclosed saying it might prove that the Russian security forces started the massacre by firing rocket-propelled grenades on the besieged building. The film had been kept secret by the authorities for nearly three years before being officially released by the Mothers on 4 September 2007. The graphic film apparently shows the prosecutors and military experts surveying the unexploded shrapnel-based bombs of the militants and structural damage in the school in Beslan shortly after the massacre. Footage shows a large hole in the wall of the sports hall, with a man saying, “The hole in the wall is not from this explosion. Apparently someone fired there,” adding that many victims bear no sign of shrapnel wounds. In another scene filmed next morning, a uniformed investigator points out that most of the IEDs in the school actually did not go off, and then points out a hole in the floor which he calls a “puncture of an explosive character”.
– Alleged FSB involvement
Several hostage-takers, including one of the leaders, Vladimir Khodov, had been previously involved in terrorist activities, but released from government custody prior to the attack despite their high profiles. According to a publication in Novaya Gazeta, “the so-called Beslan terrorists were agents of our own special forces – UBOP [Center for Countering Extremism] and FSB.” According to FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian secret services must have been aware of the plot beforehand, and therefore they themselves must have organised the attack as a false flag operation. He said that the previously arrested terrorists only would have been freed if they were of use to the FSB, and that even in the case that they were freed without being turned into FSB assets, they would be under a strict surveillance regime that would not have allowed them to carry out the Beslan attack unnoticed. According to Mothers of Beslan and Ella Kesayeva, the hostage taking might have been an “inside job”, citing the fact that the militants had planted weapons in the school prior to the incident. In September 2007, Taimuraz Chedzhemov, the lawyer representing the Mothers of Beslan, who was seeking to prosecute Russian officials over the massacre, said he had withdrawn from the case because of an anonymous death threat to his family. He said he believed the death threat was linked to a decision by the group he represented to name senior officials involved in the chaotic rescue operation whom they want put on trial.
– Government response
In general, the criticism was denied by the Russian government. President Vladimir Putin specifically dismissed the foreign criticism as Cold War mentality and said that the West wants to “pull the strings so that Russia won’t raise its head.”
The Russian government defended the use of tanks and other heavy weaponry, arguing that it was used only after surviving hostages escaped from the school. However, this contradicts the eyewitness accounts, including by the reporters and former hostages. According to the survivors and other witnesses, many hostages were seriously wounded and could not possibly escape by themselves, while others were kept by the militants as human shields and moved through the building.
Deputy Prosecutor General of Russia Nikolai Shepel, acting as deputy prosecutor at the trial of Kulayev, found no fault with the security forces in handling the siege, “According to the conclusions of the investigation, the expert commission did not find any violations that could be responsible for the harmful consequences.” Shepel acknowledged that commandos fired flamethrowers, but said this could not have sparked the fire that caused most of the deaths; he also said that the troops did not use napalm during the attack.
To address doubts, Putin launched a Duma parliamentary investigation led by Alexander Torshin, resulting in the report which criticised the federal government only indirectly and instead put blame for “a whole number of blunders and shortcomings” on local authorities. The findings of the federal and the North Ossetian commissions differed widely in many main aspects. Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov, sent by Putin in September 2005 to investigate the circumstances, concluded on 30 September that “the actions of the military personnel were justified, and there are no grounds to open a criminal investigation.”
In 2005, previously unreleased documents by the national commission in Moscow were made available to Der Spiegel. According to the paper, “instead of calling for self-criticism in the wake of the disaster, the commission recommended the Russian government to crack down harder.”
Dismissals and trials
Three local top officials resigned the aftermath of the tragedy:
North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev resigned shortly after the crisis, saying that after what happened in Beslan, he “didn’t have the right to occupy this post as an officer and a man.”
Valery Andreyev, the chief of the Ossetia’s FSB, also submitted his resignation soon after. However, he was later elevated to the prestigious position of Deputy Rector of FSB Academy.
Alexander Dzasokhov, the head of North Ossetia, resigned his post on 31 May 2005, after a series of demonstrations against him in Beslan and a public pressure from Mothers of Beslan on Putin to have him dismissed.
Five Ossetian and Ingush police officers were tried in the local courts; all of them were subsequently amnestied or acquitted in 2007. As of December 2009, none of the Russian federal officials suffered consequences in connection with the Beslan events.
Other incidents and controversies
– Escalation of the Ingush-Ossetian hostility
Nur-Pashi Kulayev claimed that attacking a school and targeting mothers and young children was not merely coincidental, but was deliberately designed for maximum outrage with the purpose of igniting a wider war in the Caucasus. According to Kulayev, the attackers hoped that the mostly Orthodox Ossetians would attack their mostly Muslim Ingush and Chechen neighbours to seek revenge, encouraging ethnic and religious hatred and strife throughout the North Caucasus. North Ossetia and Ingushetia had previously been involved in a brief but bloody conflict in 1992 over disputed land in the North Ossetian Prigorodny District, leaving up to 1,000 dead and some 40,000 to 60,000 displaced persons, mostly Ingush. Indeed, shortly after the Beslan massacre, 3,000 people demonstrated in Vladikavkaz calling for revenge against the ethnic Ingush.
The expected backlash against neighbouring nations failed to materialise on a massive scale. In one noted incident, a group of ethnic Ossetian soldiers led by a Russian officer detained two Chechen Spetsnaz soldiers and executed one of them. In July 2007, the office of the presidential envoy for the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak announced that a North Ossetian armed group engaged in abductions as retaliation for the Beslan school hostage-taking. FSB Lieutenant Colonel Alikhan Kalimatov, sent from Moscow to investigate these cases, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in September 2007.
– Grabovoy affair and the charges against Beslan activists
In September 2005, the self-proclaimed faith healer and miracle-maker Grigory Grabovoy promised he could resurrect the murdered children. Grabovoy was arrested and indicted of fraud in April 2006, amidst the accusations that he was being used by the government as a tool to discredit the Mothers of Beslan.
In January 2008, the Voice of Beslan group, which in the previous year had been court-ordered to disband, was charged by Russian prosecutors with “extremism” for their appeals in 2005 to the European Parliament to help establish an international investigation. This was soon followed with other charges, some of them relating to the 2007 court incident. As of February 2008, the group was charged in total of four different criminal cases.
Russian Patriarch Alexius II’s plans to build an Orthodox church as part of the Beslan monument have caused a serious conflict between the Orthodox Church and the leadership of the Russian Muslims in 2007. Beslan victims organizations also spoke against the project and many in Beslan want the ruins of the school to be preserved, opposing the government plan of its demolition to begin with.
The attack at Beslan was met with international abhorrence and universal condemnation. Countries and charities around the world donated to funds set up to assist the families and children that were involved in the Beslan crisis.
At the end of 2004, the International Foundation For Terror Act Victims had raised over $1.2 million with a goal of $10 million. The Israeli government offered help in rehabilitating freed hostages, and during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s visit to China in November 2005, the Chinese Health Ministry announced that they were sending doctors to Beslan, and offered free medical care to any of the victims who still needed treatment. The then mayor of Croatia’s capital Zagreb, Vlasta Pavić, offered free vacations to the Adriatic Sea to the Beslan children.
On 1 September 2005, UNICEF marked the first anniversary of the Beslan school tragedy by calling on all adults to shield children from war and conflict.
Maria Sharapova and many other female Russian tennis players wore black ribbons during the US Open 2004 in memory of the tragedy.
In August 2005, two new schools were built in Beslan, paid for by the Moscow government.
Children of Beslan (2005), a HBO Documentary Films and BBC co-production, produced and directed by Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead, nominated in three different categories under the 2006 Emmy Award festival, and awarded the Royal Television Society prize in the category Best Single Documentary. It also won a Peabody Award in 2005.
The Beslan Siege (2005), a TV-documentary by October Films, directed by Richard Alwyn and produced by Liana Pomeranzev, won the Prix Italia Documentary Award for 2006.
Return to Beslan (Terug naar Beslan) (2005) A Dutch documentary produced by Netherlands Public Broadcasting, won an Emmy Award in 2005 for “Best Continuing News Coverage”.
Three Days in September (2006), directed by Joe Halderman and narrated by Julia Roberts.
Beslan (in development), a feature film to be produced by Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment.
The Unit episode “In Loco Parentis” portrays a hostage situation in a Virginia school perpetrated by Chechen terrorists. The Beslan massacre is referenced.
“Black Widow’s Eyes” by The Who
“Living Shields” by After Forever
“Leaves of Beslan” by Giovanni Allevi
“Prayer for Beslan” by PFR
“Beslan” by Vitas
“Why?” by Geir Rönning
“Boys and Girls” by Angelica Agurbash
House of Meetings, by Martin Amis, references this massacre several times, in part to show how deeply skeptical Russian citizens were of government-disseminated information.
Beslan: The Tragedy of School Number 1 by Timothy Phillips
Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School is a school terrorism textbook that features a chapter dedicated to the incident as well as several other chapters devoted to commentary on the topic in general.