Beslan mothers: Putin is culpable

Relatives of victims in last year's massacre will meet the Russian president on Friday.

Shamil Basayev is Russia's Osama bin Laden. Yet as Beslan prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of the school siege he engineered, many of the victims' mothers are increasingly laying blame for the September massacre not on Mr. Basayev, but on Russian authorities.

They are stoking controversy by demanding that top leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, stay away from this week's service to commemorate the 331 victims, half of them children, who perished in the Sept. 1-3, 2004, terrorist attack.

Their accusations have been fueled by leaks from two still-incomplete investigations, and evidence presented at the ongoing trial of the sole surviving terrorist, Nurpashi Kulayev. Both have raised sharp doubts about the official version of events.

Witnesses at Mr. Kulayev's trial have testified that Russian security forces, using flame-throwers and tanks against a school holding more than 1,000 hostages, may have been responsible for many deaths.

Others have fingered corrupt officials and inept police officers for allowing the terrorists to drive across a heavily guarded border and seize a school in the center of a large town.

"We want all those who are responsible to face justice," says Roza Sidakova, a spokesperson for the Beslan Mothers group. Ms. Sidakova lost her 9-year-old daughter when security forces stormed the school on Sept. 3.

The mood of disbelief is not confined to victims' families. A countrywide poll conducted last month by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation found that only 15 percent of Russians expect the official investigation, headed by Alexander Torshin, the deputy speaker of parliament's upper house, to get to the bottom of what happened in Beslan.

Another 20 percent think the commission will discover the truth, but keep it secret.

"The reaction of the mothers of Beslan is a manifestation of the profound distrust many Russians are feeling toward the authorities," says Yevgenia Albats, a political scientist at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. "This is because the authorities have covered the truth about those events of a year ago in a thick layer of lies, which contaminates everything."

The official version holds that on Sept. 1, 32 terrorists linked to Basayev, a Chechen warlord, drove in a hijacked military-style truck from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, evaded many police checkpoints, and occupied Beslan School No. 1. They took about 1,200 children, parents, and teachers hostage in the school's gym, which the terrorists festooned with makeshift explosives.

On the third day of the crisis, one of the terrorists' bombs accidentally detonated, prompting security forces to launch an ill-prepared 10-hour 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 gym's roof, set alight by terrorist bombs, came crashing down.

But this picture is challenged by mothers - and many witnesses at Kulayev's trial - who say there were at least 50 attackers, many of whom escaped. The terrorists made use of weapons and supplies that had been prepositioned in the school, suggesting an inside job, they said. Kulayev testified that the first explosion resulted when a Russian sniper killed one of the hostage-takers who was holding down a bomb-detonator with his foot.

Kulayev's trial has brought stunning revelations. Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel was forced to admit that "Shmel" flame-throwers were used in the assault, after local mothers found several launch tubes and submitted them to the court. Mr. Shepel insisted the weapons fired only fuel-air explosives that day, rather than the incendiary napalm grenades they are also designed to use, and thus could not have caused the gym fire that killed most of the hostages.

But Stanislav Kesayev, who heads an investigation set up by North Ossetia's parliament, says that traces of napalm were found by medical examiners.

"As the days go by, we see that the testimony of Kulayev and other information coming out at the trial is producing a very different view of what happened," he says.

Under pressure from the mothers, Russian authorities also admitted that two T-72 tanks fired several cannon rounds into the school during the battle on Sept. 3, but say they did not shoot at the gym where hostages were held.

Mr. Kesayev says that his local probe, which Russian officials have denounced as "illegal," has been unable to establish who was in command of the security operation at Beslan. "We can't even say who was giving the orders," he says. "There is a general feeling here that Kulayev will be convicted, and that will be the end of it."

The head of the Moscow-based parliamentary investigation, Mr. Torshin, told the newspaper Izvestia this week that the Beslan mothers are acting from emotions and "not being logical" in their accusations against Russia's leadership. "The fact that this open trial [of Kulayev] is taking place shows that the authorities are not interested in keeping secrets," he said.

For Mr. Putin, whose popularity has been sliding for several months, the challenge posed by the Beslan mothers has been an embarrassment. The Kremlin last week countered by inviting the women to talk with Putin in Moscow on Friday, in the midst of the Beslan memorial services.

Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the mothers' group, says the women resent the timing of the summons, but, "We shall go to Moscow, overcoming our pain and offense," she told the online newspaper "We will ask our questions, and we expect to hear answers."

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