Among the wilted flowers brought to celebrate the first day of classes in the now blackened wreckage of Beslan's School No. 1 are the abundant signs of a sophisticated terror operation. That evidence is sparking a re-examination of the long-standing Chechen links to Al Qaeda.
"They were so well trained - the highest level," says Oleg Tedeyev, deputy chief of a local police unit, who was involved in the battle Friday that freed more than 700 people, and officially left 338 dead, half of them children.
In recent months, radical Islamist Chechen leaders such as Shamil Basayev, along with Osama bin Laden, have been "clear" about wanting to "set Russia on fire," says Michael Radu, a terrorism expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "This is not an Al Qaeda operation: These are autonomous groups," he says. "It's not like bin Laden wrote the checks. But they are synchronized ideologically and strategically."
Survivors say the 30-odd attackers were mostly Russian-speaking Chechens. But as families in this small town near Chechnya bury their dead Monday, they described the end of the saga as one in which both the hostage-takers and Russian special forces were caught off guard by an accidental explosion in the gymnasium, which sparked a lethal firefight and hostage escape.
Still officials here say the evidence suggests a complex operation and the kind of preparation once given in the Al Qaeda training camps of Afghanistan.
When officials entered the school building after the battle, they found syringes. The hostage-takers weren't addicts, but they were taking drugs "to keep them awake," says Mr. Tedeyev, whose own two children escaped as the school was seized. "As a military man, I was surprised how they could position themselves so well. In minutes, in seconds, they understood [the place]. It wasn't the first time they were here."
In the smoldering school, though swept by Russian intelligence and security services, a single singed wire still hangs from a charred basketball hoop - testifying to the web of explosives rigged from the ceiling and walls of the gymnasium, where more than 1,200 agonized hostages were held for three days.
A shredded black belt and bloodied camouflage utility vest lies in the hall next to the cafeteria, where a female suicide bomber detonated herself.
And in the library, chunks of the floor have been hacked away to reveal hiding spaces, where the Chechen separatists had stored ammunition and explosives, perhaps building the stockpile for several months, during summer renovation work.
Russian media reports that as many as 10 of the attackers were Arab have also raised questions about the link with Islamic militant groups.
"I think it's Al Qaeda. I think it's Saudi Arabia, Arabs, and possibly Afghan terrorists - and terrorists who are here in Russia as well," says Soslan Sikoyev, the deputy interior minister for North Ossetia, who has offered to resign for failing to prevent the crisis. He has been kidnapped twice himself by militants in past years.
But he adds tiredly, "It doesn't matter what nationalities they are ... because they have brought so much grief."
An Al Qaeda-connected group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades, which has been active in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for both the simultaneous downing of two passenger jets on Aug. 24, that left 90 dead, and a suicide bomb in Moscow on August 31 that killed ten more.
But while President Vladimir Putin - under increasing pressure for the three attacks in 10 days that killed more than 435 Russians - has connected the jet crashes to Al Qaeda, he has not made that link with the hostage drama.
"This is a challenge to all of Russia, to all our people," Mr. Putin said in an address to the nation on Saturday. "We have to admit that we failed to recognized the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our country and the world as a whole .... We demonstrated our weakness, and the weak are beaten."
Putin has made clear that he will not temper his hard-line Chechnya policy. Chechen separatists have wanted independence for more than a decade. But since the break up of the Soviet Union 13 years ago, the Kremlin has taken a strong stance against losing any more territory.
Ties between Chechen radicals and Al Qaeda stretch back to the first Chechen war (1994-1996). A radical element - spurred by would-be clerics who traveled to Saudi Arabia to learn about the Salafi fundamentalist strain of Islam - began to develop in the late 1990s.
By 1999, when Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev invaded Russian territory in Dagestan - prompting a second war - it became clear that Islamic radicals dominated Chechen rebel groups.
"Chechnya began to attract [Al Qaeda] emissaries, adventurers, and finances," says Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Yerevan, Armenia. "After 1999, the radical tendency grew strong, and became more internationalized."
This second war burns on, and has two parts: guerrilla warfare and terrorist acts, says Mr. Iskandarian. "Over the last month, we've seen a considerable growth of the second component, terrorism."
"Russian policy in the Caucasus in the last 10 years helped a lot to separate the Caucasus from Russia," he says. "Ideology is being generated against Russia - Islamization is growing. There are more calls for sharia law, not only by radicals, but by average Muslims."
North Ossetia, historically the only pro-Russian, Christian portion of the North Caucasus - which has long-held grudges against Muslim Ingush and Chechens - may have been seen as an ideal target to spark havoc here.
"A very sophisticated group stands behind this - I don't want to single out Al Qaeda; there may be unexpected sources," says Vitaly Shlykov, an independent military analyst in Moscow. "There are some [Chechen] contacts with Al Qaeda, but to operate in real time? I'm doubtful [Chechens] receive orders and act on them. The guidance is more ideological."
Many of residents of Beslan say they are convinced that their Ingush and Chechen neighbors are to blame, and that foreign operatives would have had a hard time infiltrating in any numbers. "Of course, there was someone behind them - they were speaking on mobile phones; they had their bosses," says Tamik Granikov, a local builder, referring to people outside Beslan but not foreigners.
Russian officials say they have arrested three men on suspicion of involvement, possibly by tracing phone calls. When the crisis began, Mr. Granikov says, "we were worried about whether the renovation work was used as a cover. They never could have brought so many grenades and bullets [on the day of the attack]."
Tedeyev, the police officer - whose house is so close to the school that two bullets came through his windows - says he saw the body of a black foreigner. He also says that this group learned from past terrorist mistakes. They carried gas masks and broke windows to prevent being gassed like the Chechen separatists who took over the Dubrovka Theater while the play "Nord-Ost" was being performed in October 2002. "It seems they studied all the cases, from the Nord-Ost to those in the US," says Tedeyev. "So it becomes more difficult for the state to fight terror. TV shows everything the Spetnatz [special forces] does. We seem to teach [terrorists] ourselves, and then we suffer for it."
"Christina! Christina!" the woman wailed, beside herself with grief, trailing behind with one hand high on a rich-hued coffin, as men carried it to the graveyard.
She raised her other hand, too, clawing at the edge of the wooden box. All she could manage, as the distraught family entered the mourning horror of Beslan's graveyard, was a defeated "No! No!"
One percent of Beslan's population, some 338 people, half of them children, have been killed in the school hostage tragedy, and Russia is grieving.
In this small town, families are just starting to come to terms with a tragedy that is both profoundly individual and national in its nature. The backhoes paused briefly from their graveyard digging, out of respect, as heartbroken families buried more than 100 Monday. But even as heavy rain washed away the tears, the backhoes were called into service to fill in some graves.
Zaur Gutinov, not yet 10, was buried with his small yellow truck. After many kisses, his family bid him goodbye.
People here are angry as they cope with their own family trauma. But that anger has yet to solidify into serious questions of leadership.
Of those, there are many. "We've never felt less protected," says a woman who refused to give her name. "When did we ever feel safe? We do not have any hope. People's only concern is how to bury their children; they're in grief."
"We don't know what will happen tomorrow," says Magarita Abayeva. "Who will come and say, 'We are responsible?' Those who are responsible know it, they know."
The coffins came, and came, and came, followed by distraught family members clutching photo portraits and clinging to each other.
"Forgive them their sins," said Russian Orthodox Father Vladimir Slonimsky. "And to the people who are alive, let them have enough courage to survive the losses."
The process of coping turned grim on Saturday at an outdoor facility 15 miles away at Vladikavkaz. Families wearing facemasks looked through several hundred body bags and clear plastic bags to identify loved ones.
"I've got his picture!" cried mother Lilia Zaporezhets, when she identified her 11-year-old son, Sergei.
She held his portrait, and wept. "I just gave him a new haircut before school."