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Aching To Know

A year later, witnesses ask whether Russian forces are partly to blame for the bloody outcome of a hostage crisis. The town wants full disclosure.

August 27, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BESLAN, Russia — The bodies of Beslan's children lay in freshly dug graves when the most troubling questions of the deadly hostage-taking at Middle School No. 1 started to emerge.

On the roof of a five-story apartment building across from the school where 318 hostages died and about 700 others were wounded in September, residents found three large, empty tubes, a little more than 36 inches long, marked with red stripes and numeric codes. In Russia's battle-scarred North Caucasus region, it didn't take long to find someone who could identify them as the casings of a rocket-fired flamethrower projectile.

Had someone fired flamethrowers at a school full of captive children? Why?

Similar confusion surrounded the discovery outside the school of three casings from the enormous, 125-millimeter cannon of a T-72 tank.

Were any hostages alive when the tank pointed its gun at the school and opened fire?

A week from today, Russia will observe the first anniversary of the worst terrorist act in its history. But Beslan residents have made it clear that senior officials in Moscow, including President Vladimir V. Putin, are not welcome at the ceremonies -- not until it is certain that the authorities themselves bear no responsibility for the lives lost in the explosions and storming operation that ended the three-day ordeal in the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

The tragedy began when an estimated three dozen militants, calling for Russian troops to leave the neighboring republic of Chechnya, herded 1,128 students, teachers and parents into a stuffy gymnasium and wired it with makeshift bombs.

But what caused the deadly conflagration that ended the standoff remains unclear, and the doubts have loomed larger as time has passed. According to the official version, bombs accidentally exploded inside the school, touching off a fire that rushed through the gym and killed many of the hostages.

But numerous survivors believe that the furious gun battle between the hostage-takers and armed forces outside the school may have played a crucial role in igniting and spreading the blaze.

A confidential military prosecutor's review of the siege obtained by the Los Angeles Times, along with interviews with former hostages and a government videotape of the carnage, suggests a chaotic operation with little or no communication among military units.

Grenades, tank shells and flamethrowers were fired into the school building, and an armored personnel carrier also opened fire, this evidence shows. An uncontrolled, unpredictable crowd of armed civilians was allowed to open fire at the school, complicating the question of who fired the first shot, and a botched firefighting operation may have led to 100 or more hostages being burned alive.

Moreover, the only surviving hostage-taker insists that the initial explosions were ignited when a sniper shot a militant whose foot was on the trigger.

"We ask questions, and they don't answer," said Susanna Dudiyeva, chairwoman of the Beslan Mothers Committee, which is leading the campaign for a full account of the conflagration.

"They tell us the prosecutor is looking into all this, and they say an expert analysis of the situation is underway.... They didn't think the citizens would do things like searching for tubes. They didn't think the citizens would present any particular demands to them at all," she said. "Somehow, they must address our doubts and the information we've collected. If what the eyewitnesses are saying is the truth, then they must admit it's the truth. And if they think they're not telling the truth, then they must say why."

Stanislav Kesaev, a member of the commission investigating the incident on behalf of the parliament of North Ossetia, said too many questions remained unanswered.

"What concerns me most is that I feel too many people, including in offices very high up, don't want to search for the truth," Kesaev said. "Because the truth is that they are not sufficiently professional, not sufficiently patriotic, not sufficiently civic-minded and, ultimately, not sufficiently decent."

The questions are hard to answer, in part because most hard evidence disappeared when bulldozers hauled away the rubble and scraped the gymnasium floor clean the day after the siege ended.

Two months later, Murat Katsanov, a local driver, was at a dump outside town when he stumbled upon a pile of refuse that caused his hair to stand on end: clumps of human tissue and identity documents belonging to a hostage at the gym. It was wreckage hauled out of the school, he knew immediately. Or what was left after the crows and foxes got to it.

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