Pavel Felgenhauer, the well-known independent military analyst, cited further evidence last week suggesting that the assault on the school was consciously planned in advance by the Russian authorities “not as a special operation for the purpose of rescuing the hostages, but as a military operation for the purpose of wiping out the guerrillas no matter what the cost.” That evidence is the presence of a powerful anti-personnel weapon that would be appropriate only for indiscriminate destruction of enemy troops. Felgenhauer suggested that perhaps it was precisely the use of this weapon that caused such a large number of victims to disappear without a trace.
According to Felgenhauer’s article in Novaya gazeta on October 7, weapons that looked like “Shmel” flamethrower/grenade launchers (named after the Russian word for “bumblebee”) were spotted on the roof of a building opposite the school. The weapons were even recorded by television cameras.
The “Shmel” is a so-called “thermobaric” weapon, similar to the controversial “fuel-air” bombs used by the U.S. military in heavy combat. It disperses highly explosive droplets of petrochemicals into a space occupied by the enemy, and then ignites them. The intense shock and heat of the resulting blast are devastating even to troops sheltering in entrenchments or lightly armored vehicles. One can only imagine the effect on a conventional building such as a school.
According to Felgenhauer, the “Shmel” falls under the restrictions of the third protocol of the 1980 Geneva Convention, which Russia has signed. That treaty forbids the use of incendiary weapons against any site with a high concentration of civilians.
Another little-noticed detail which caught Felgenhauer’s attention: At 2:17 p.m. on September 3 (according to the videotape of a foreign television crew), an armored Mi-24 attack helicopter appeared in the skies over the school. Like the “Shmel” flamethrower, this heavily armed aircraft is also designed for use in heavy combat rather than for surgical hostage-rescue operations. “According to local witnesses,” wrote Felgenhauer, “it now turns out that the Mi-24…conducted air strikes around Beslan on September 3.” That information, along with reports that the Russian army used point-blank fire from tank guns in Beslan, would seem to provide further evidence that terrorists escaped from the school not just as individual fugitives but as intact, fighting units—against whom the federal troops were still waging combat operations elsewhere in the town on September 4 and perhaps even later.
On the other hand, the Novaya gazeta military commentator Vyacheslav Izmailov sought comment from an anonymous Russian officer who had commanded chemical-warfare troops using the “Shmel” weapon in Chechnya. This officer confirmed that a single “Shmel” could completely destroy a five-story building—but suggested that in Beslan the federal troops would have used lighter weapons such as RPG-7 grenade launchers.
In an article filed from Beslan and published on October 11, Novaya gazeta correspondent Yelena Milashina cited further details provided by Elbrus Todtiev, a reporter for a local newspaper in Beslan. Todtiev, whose 10-year old son Timur was one of the schoolchildren who died on September 3, said that two T-72 tanks, and one T-80 or T-90 tank, took part in the Beslan operation. Their cannon fired directly on the school, he said, knocking down an auditorium wall. He too saw helicopters: one Mi-8 (a transport aircraft) and one Mi-24 attack aircraft.
Todtiev’s son was caught in the crossfire while running away from the school after the September 3 explosions in its gymnasium—and killed while trying to drag a wounded schoolmate to safety. Todtiev said that the identity of Timur’s body was established only with the help of a forensic laboratory in Rostov-on-the-Don; the body had been burned beyond recognition. Todtiev is certain that the federal commandos used “Shmel” flamethrowers—otherwise his son would not have suffered such massive burns after he had already escaped from the building.