Russia remembers Beslan victims

Most believe that the truth about the tragedy will never be disclosed by authorities, who have been accused of botching up the hostage seige.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2006 16:15 IST

Russia on Friday remembered the victims of the worst terror attack on its soil, even as most of the public believes the truth about Beslan massacre will never be disclosed by authorities who have been accused of botching up the hostage seige.

Two years ago this day, terrorists attacked a secondary school in the sleepy Beslan town of the Caucasian republic of North Ossetia, bordering on restive Chechnya, and took over one thousand students, teachers and parents as hostages.

On the third day of the siege 332 people, including 186 children were killed in what is widely perceived as a "botched" attempt by the security forces to free them.

Today, tearful kin of the victims, the survivors and others who watched the horror unfold, remembered the dead. Hundreds swept through security checks to light candles and lay flowers at the ruins of Beslan's school number one.

While the rest of the region marked the beginning of the school year, in Beslan the ceremonies were put off till Tuesday.

The Russian public, however, is still sceptical about the official version of events of September 1, 2004.

A survey released this week by the independent Levada Centre in Moscow found that just 5 percent of Russians believe officials have told the whole truth about Beslan.

An independent investigation published this week will only reinforce public suspicions by challenging key points in the official version of what happened during the three days.

Savelyev, an explosives expert and member of the official Duma commission probing the tragedy, concludes the 11-hour gunbattle that killed most of the victims was triggered not by a bomb detonated by the attackers -- as authorities claim -- but by a military incendiary grenade.

Citing new evidence, he suggests security forces may have fired machine guns, tank cannons, and rocket grenades into a wing of the school, killing over 100 hostages.

The official version holds that on that day, 32 attackers - all now accounted for - drove in a hijacked military truck from the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, evaded several police checkpoints, and seized the school.

The hostages were crammed into the school's gym, which the militants rigged with homemade explosives.

On the third day of the crisis one of the bombs accidentally detonated, prompting security forces to launch an ill-prepared assault that succeeded in saving most hostages.

According to officials, security troops took all possible precautions to protect civilians, but hundreds of casualties occurred when the roof of the gym, set alight by the homemade bombs, came crashing down.

That account has long been challenged by a breakaway group of bereaved Beslan mothers, which has sought US and EU intervention in the probe.

It believes corrupt officials allowed the terrorists to store weapons and explosives in the school in the weeks before the attack, and enabled many of them to escape amid the confusion of the final gunbattle.

Savelyev's report, which includes hundreds of pages of witnesses testimony, photos, videos, and expert opinion, cites evidence that police in the neighbouring republic of Chechnya had several hours notice of the pending attack, but failed to notify their counterparts in Beslan.

"I came to the conclusion that those homemade explosive devices installed by the rebels did not explode at all," Savelyev said. "(The blasts came from) explosive devices delivered from outside."

Citing witnesses, Savelyev says at least 60 of the militants were inside the school during the siege, about half of whom escaped. Like other critics, the Savelyev report is scathing on the authorities' overall lack of readiness to handle the crisis.

When the school burst into flames, the report says, no fire engines were on hand, they arrived later woefully ill equipped.

Other members of the Duma commission have slammed Savelyev for publishing his report on the eve of the politically-sensitive Beslan anniversary.

Commission head Alexander Torshin derided Savelyev's report this week as "speculation."

The siege, allegedly orchestrated by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was killed in a Special Forces operation this summer, ended when troops stormed the school and rescued about 1,000 people.

A total of 12 law enforcement personnel including 7 crack commandos were killed and 55 wounded in the rescue operation, according to parliamentary commission's preliminary report.

But the public is distrustful of official versions. Of the 1,600 people polled by Levada Centre, 50 percent think they've been given part of the picture, 28 per cent believe the authorities are covering up the truth, and 8 percent say the government is deliberately lying about what happened.

President Putin, who announced the major overhaul of the political system in the country to streamline the governance and accountability of the authorities after the Beslan school carnage, however, is not affected by the public distrust, although his opponents see his post-Beslan moves as "muzzling" of free press and curbing democracy.

First Published: Sep 01, 2006 16:15 IST