More than one month has now passed since the tragedy in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, but what really happened there is still subject to debate. When the hostages crisis ended with hundreds dead, Russian authorities tried their best to assure the outside world that the anti-terrorist assault had not been planned from the very beginning. Officials said that the mysterious blast inside the school, which killed many captives, and the terrorists shooting at the escaping children and adults compelled special forces to join the local Ossetian paramilitaries in a rescue attempt.
Some observers, however, have challenged the official version of the events. Pavel Felgenhauer, the independent Moscow-based defense analyst, noticed that helicopters appeared in the school area 17 minutes after the assault had begun, while it usually takes at least half an hour for a helicopter to warm up its engine.
There are many indications that preparations for the assault were well underway on the morning of September 3. The fenced-off area near the school had been expanded (Ezhenedelny zhurnal, #35, 2004), while local hospitals were preparing for a large influx of patients (Liberation, September 4). In addition, some of the rescued children told Izvestiya that the first blast was not inside but “somewhere near the gymnasium’s porch” (Izvestiya, September 4).
But this evidence is not as crucial as that obtained by Novaya gazeta from sources with the Investigation Commission of the Russian Federal Assembly. According to the newspaper, tanks and armored vehicles had been transported to the school’s vicinity on September 2 (Novaya gazeta, October 7; EDM, October 13). The newspaper further reported that several casings from rocket-propelled flame-throwers (Shmel) were found on the roof of the building opposite the school. Some witnesses said that the flame-throwers were used to set the roof of the school on fire at the onset of the attack. In addition, a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed one of the walls of the gymnasium, where the hostages had gathered.
In fact, the information published by Novaya gazeta confirmed that at 1 pm on September 3, Russian special forces launched a planned attack that ignored the possibility that some of the hostages might die during the assault. In addition, photos taken by journalists after the siege did not show any holes in the walls inside the gymnasium (where they should have been if mines and bombs had exploded inside), but a large hole was visible under the window near the gymnasium’s porch. The Novaya gazeta article forced the parliamentary Commission to admit officially that “tanks, flame-throwers, and grenade launchers were used during the assault” (yufo.ru, October 12).
It looks as though the anti-terrorist command post set up in Beslan was ordered to end the crisis at all costs. We know the terrorists’ demands, based on the statement released by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. In his letter addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which the terrorists had given to the Ingush leader and negotiator Ruslan Aushev, Basaev demanded the recognition of the independence of Chechnya and withdrawal of Russian troops from the republic. He offered in exchange to stop all anti-Russian activities in the Caucasus and close all terrorist training camps. Basaev also promised that an independent Chechnya would become a member of the CIS and join the Collective Security Treaty. Putin immediately answered Basaev, saying in his September 2 speech that he would never endanger the fragile balance in the North Caucasus (Interfax, September 3).
The assault came the next day, suggesting that the authorities were already preparing for the operation.
The attack was to start at 1 pm, when officers from the Ministry of Emergencies would enter the school to remove the bodies of dead hostages, as agreed with the terrorists. The plan sought to attack the gymnasium, after first taking out snipers on the roof with flame-throwers and making a hole under the window to provide an escape route for the hostages. At the same time, another assault group (a mixed squadron of officers from the “Alfa” and “Vympel” Russian special units) would enter the school’s main building to destroy the terrorists and release other hostages.
But the masterminds of the anti-terrorist operation miscalculated the terrorist’s response. Basaev said that he had instructed his group to attack if an assault began. “Alfa fighters know how to advance but do not know how to defend themselves, you should damage the enemy as much as possible and show a good example for those who will go after you,” he declared (Daymohk, September 17).
Official reports said that the terrorists left the school immediately after the explosions (Interfax, September 3). They rushed out of the building shooting after special forces had killed two terrorists who were meeting with officers from the Ministry of Emergencies (Daymohk, September 17).
According to voina.net.ru, a website run by veterans of the Russian special forces, the commander of the main assault group, Colonel Oleg Ilyin (“Vympel”), was killed by a terrorist during the first minutes of fighting. The commanders of the other two groups (Major Alexander Petrov (“Alfa”) and Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Ratzumovsky (“Vympel”) also died almost immediately (voina.net.ru).
Chaos ensued. The special forces were left without commanders and had not been briefed on what to do. The terrorists were attacking and hostages were running everywhere. The special forces then began to retreat, many dying under terrorist fire. Bullets coming from both sides hit hostages. When the operation failed, the Russian command, unable to attack again, had no recourse but to use all firepower, including tanks, to “finish off” the terrorists, while hostages were still in the school and nearby buildings.