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Five years after Beslan tragedy, questions linger

Half of all Russians surveyed say they don't know the whole truth about how more than 300 people, mostly children, were killed when the military raided the school where they were held hostage.

By Correspondent / September 3, 2009

MOSCOW – It was a parent's worst nightmare.

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On the first day of school, Sept. 1, 2004, terrorists seized Beslan's School No. 1, herding more than 1,000 children and teachers into a gymnasium at gunpoint, where they held them without food or water for three tense days as townspeople and Russian special forces looked on from the nearby street.

On the third day, the nightmare turned to sheer horror. Russian troops assaulted the crowded school amid a wave of explosions and a storm of gunfire. Hundreds were pulled to safety but when the shooting stopped, many hours later, more than 330 people – mostly children – were dead.

For many of the bereaved parents of Beslan and other Russians, the questions about what happened on that terrible day have never been satisfactorily answered. No official, at any level, was fired over the catalogue of blunders that led to the deadly firestorm that killed hundreds of children. The Kremlin, backed by an obedient State Duma, blocked a full investigation.

But unofficial studies have contradicted the official line by suggesting that the Army may have opened hostilities – and not the terrorists – and that the military subsequently used heavy weaponry, including tank shells, inside the hostage-filled gymnasium.

"From that day to the present, people here blame the authorities," says Khasan Dzutsev, director of the Center of Social Surveys in Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located. "The [security forces] did not even do the most elementary things to save people."

Many of the victim's relatives say that, five years on, they feel only despair.

"There has been no proper investigation of what happened," says Ella Kesayeva, cochair of Voice of Beslan, a group representing the victim's relatives. "We feel as if no lessons have been learned, and that tragedy could repeat itself at any moment. No one can protect us; there is no accountability at the top [of Russian government]," she says.

A survey conducted this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that half of Russians believe that only part of true story about Beslan is known. Twenty-five percent said they suspect the authorities are actively covering up unpleasant facts, and just 10 percent think the whole truth has been made public.

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