The Magazine

The Truth About Beslan

What Putin's government is covering up.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By DAVID SATTER
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Dzasokhov appealed for help to the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, a critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and made contact with a representative of the Chechen resistance in London, Akhmed Zakayev. On September 2, Aushev entered the school and left with 26 hostages, 15 children and 11 women. He also brought out a note with demands from Shamil Basayev, the terrorist leader who had organized the attack but was not himself present in Beslan. The existence of the note was concealed from the public. The authorities falsely stated that the terrorists had presented no demands.

In fact, the conditions suggested by Basayev were not unreasonable. While he proposed formal independence for Chechnya in exchange for security for Russia, he also said an independent Chechnya would conclude no military or political agreements directed against Russia, would remain in the ruble zone, and would join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Finally, Basayev said that although the Chechen rebels had played no part in the 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk that had served as the pretext for the start of the Second Chechen War, the rebels would publicly take responsibility for them, an indication that Basayev really believed the bombings had been carried out by the FSB.

At noon on September 3, Zakayev informed President Dzasokhov that Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chech en president, was prepared to come to Beslan to mediate the crisis. Dzasokhov reported Maskhadov's willingness to come to Beslan to General Vladimir Pronichev, the head of the FSB operation on the ground there. The Russian authorities' agreement to allow Maskhadov safe passage would have almost certainly ended the crisis because it would have signified implicit Russian recognition of Chechen aspirations. The Russian authorities, however, did not respond to Maskhadov's proposal. Within an hour, the storming of the school had begun.

Of all the issues connected to Beslan, the most emotional for the survivors was the question of who shot first, provoking the massacre. Survivors testifying at the trial of the surviving terrorist said that the Russians struck first, attacking the school with flamethrowers and grenade launchers. When officials denied that flamethrowers had been used, the survivors presented the court with used tubes from flamethrowers that had been found in the area near the school. The implications of this discovery were harrowing. The flame thrower to which the tubes belonged shoots a capsule that on detonation creates a fireball and a shock wave capable of destroying everything in its path. It is impossible to use the weapon "surgically."

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

The most powerful confirmation, however, came in a report released by Yuri Saveliev, a member of the federal parliamentary investigative commission and a highly regarded expert on the physics of combustion. Saveliev, a Duma deputy, was the only such expert on the commission. Saveliev concluded that the first explosion was the result of a shot from a flame thrower fired from the fifth story of a building near the school at 1:03 P.M. The second explosion came 22 seconds later and was caused by a high explosive fragmentation grenade with a dynamite equivalent of 6.1 kilograms shot from another five story building on the same street. The explosions, according to Saveliev, caused a catastrophic fire and the collapse of the roof of the school gymnasium, which led to the deaths of the majority of the hostages. The order to put out the fire did not come for two hours. As a result, hostages who could have been saved were burned alive.

According to Saveliev, another 106 to 110 hostages died after terrorists moved them from the burning gym to the school's cafeteria, which came under heavy fire from security forces using flamethrowers, rocket launchers, and tanks. His analysis thus supports the view of human rights activists that at least 80 percent of the hostages were killed by indiscriminate Russian fire.

When Saveliev presented his conclusions to the other members of the parliamentary investigating commission, he was accused by the chairman, Alexander Torshin, of "deliberate falsification." Saveliev then released his findings independently on August 29 and October 12. The release of the findings of the Torshin commission has been postponed indefinitely.