Russian forces faulted in Beslan school tragedy

A new report condemns the handling of the Beslan school attack two years later.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The hard, bitter questions just won't stop coming.

Two years after the terrorist attack on a Beslan school that killed 332 people, including 186 children, a majority of Russians say they don't believe their government is telling the truth about the tragedy.

An independent investigation published this week will heap fuel on the flames of public doubt by challenging key points in the official version of what happened during the three violent September days that are often referred to as "Russia's 9/11."

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Despite broad public suspicion and anger over the attack, President Vladimir Putin, who used the shock of Beslan to ram through tough curbs on Russian democracy two years ago, appears so far to have avoided any direct association with the fiasco in the public mind.

The 700-page unauthorized report, written by parliamentarian Yury Savelyev and excerpted in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, reads like a catalog of official incompetence and malfeasance, with occasional hints of conspiracy.

It alleges that authorities had advance warning of the attack, hours before terrorists seized 1,128 hostages and confined them in the gym of Beslan's School No. 1, but did not act upon it.

Mr. Savelyev, an explosives expert and member of the official Duma commission investigating the tragedy, concludes that the brutal, 11-hour gun battle that killed most of the victims was triggered not by a bomb detonated by the attackers – as authorities claim – but by a Russian incendiary grenade. Citing new evidence, he suggests that Russian security forces may have fired machine guns, tank cannons, and rocketgrenades into a wing of the school, killing over 100 hostages.

"Recent polls show most Russians do not believe they're being told the truth about Beslan, and it looks like they have good grounds not to," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Everything points to the likelihood that the government is more interested in covering up what happened there than in disclosing the real facts."

A survey released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that just 5 percent of Russians believe officials have told the whole truth about Beslan. According to the poll of 1,600 people, 50 percent think they've been given part of the picture, 28 percent believe the authorities are covering up the truth, and 8 percent say the government is deliberately lying about what happened.

The official version holds that on Sept. 1, 2004, 32 attackers – all now accounted for – drove in a hijacked military truck from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, evaded several police checkpoints, and seized the school. The hostages were crammed into the school's gym, which the gunmen 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 group of bereaved Beslan mothers. The group believes that corrupt officials allowed the terrorists to store weapons and explosives in the school in the weeks preceding the attack, and enabled many of them to escape amid the confusion of the final gun battle.The sole surviving attacker, Nu rpashi Kulayev, was sentenced to life imprisonment in May. A full official investigation by the Duma commission has been delayed repeatedly and is now due for release this month.

Savelyev's report, which includes hundreds of pages of testimony from witnesses, photos, videos, and expert opinion, cites evidence that police in the neighboring republic of Chechnya had several hours notice of the pending attack, but failed to notify their counterparts in Beslan's North Ossetia republic. Savelyev this week told the radio station Ekho Moskvi that evidence shows a Russian RPO-A flame-thrower triggered the final, deadly gun battle.

"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 firetrucks were on hand, then arrived later woefully ill equipped.

Other members of the Duma commission have slammed Savelyev for publishing his report on the eve of the politically-delicate Beslan anniversary. Commission head Alexander Torshin derided Savelyev's report this week as "speculation."

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