Could The Beslan Tragedy Have Been Avoided?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 34

The Beslan horror marks a threefold escalation in Russia’s civil war. First, the terrorists who seized that North Ossetian town’s School No. 1 used new, gratuitously cruel tactics, not only deliberately targeting children but withholding food and drink from them and firing into their backs as they tried to flee. The terrorists, whoever they may have been, are credibly reported to have murdered adult male hostages in cold blood on the siege’s very first day. These methods stand in stark contrast to those of the June raid on Ingushetia and the August raid in Grozny, in which the guerrillas took some pains to avoid targeting civilians of any age.

Second, the war is now spreading geographically—at an accelerating rate, and into some highly explosive places. Despite the federal security agencies’ brutalizing of Chechen refugees and their sympathizers in Ingushetia, it took nearly a decade from the start of the first Chechen war before major guerrilla battles erupted in that province. The surprise attack on Beslan enflames an area which is not only still farther from the Chechen battleground, but especially vulnerable to ethno-religious conflict. For centuries Ossetia has been an Orthodox Christian stronghold in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, a bridge between the Russian imperial heartland and Georgia to the south. Some think that Stalin was an Ossetian by ancestry; in any case, during World War II, Stalin spared the Christian Ossetians (though not the province’s Muslim minority) the mass deportations which fell so heavily on other Caucasian peoples and especially on the Chechens and Ingush. In 1992, North Ossetia and Ingushetia fought a brief but violent mini-war over a border district claimed by both provinces. The Ossetians easily won with the help of the Russian army, thousands of Ingush became refugees, and resentments have continued to smolder on both sides.

Third, last week saw new highs—or rather, lows—in the Russian authorities’ tactics for deceiving the public and suppressing the work of independent journalists. The authorities seem to have suppressed information and spread disinformation about the number of hostages, the ethnic identities of the hostage-takers, the number of casualties among both the hostages and the hostage-takers, and the fate of the hostage-takers who escaped the assault on the school. They took extraordinary means to prevent two of Moscow’s bravest, most knowledgeable journalists from flying to the North Caucasus—apparently even trying to murder one of them by poison.

As has often been the case, the authorities’ lies were striking both for their brazenness and for their incompetence—especially in the matter of the number of hostages. Federal Security Service (FSB) spokesmen told journalists during the night of September 1 to September 2 that to the best of their knowledge the terrorists had seized about 300 people—including parents and teachers as well as children. Government officials could not possibly have thought that such a low estimate could be correct—not for a school known to have more than 800 registered pupils, and not on September 1, which in North Ossetia as elsewhere in Russia is a festive occasion on which parents and grandparents, especially those of younger children, visit the school to celebrate the start of the school year. Even if the authorities were trying to lay the groundwork for later understating the number of deaths, they must have known that the truth, or at least the approximate truth, about the number of hostages would get out.

To quote but one of many sources, on September 4, Alla Gadzieva, taken hostage together with her 16-year-old son and her mother, told journalists that the school gymnasium alone had contained more than 1,200 captives. But it was only on Saturday afternoon, according to, that North Ossetian presidential aide Lev Dsugaev admitted for the first time that the number of hostages in the school had exceeded 1,000.

According to Novaya gazeta on September 6, the authorities “knew from the very beginning” that more than 1,200 hostages had been seized. During the evening of September 3, presidential aide Aslambek Aslakhanov admitted that the terrorists had told him of that number during their first telephone conversation.

As the events of September 3 unfolded, the authorities released casualty estimates that repeatedly turned out to have understated the reality. For example, late that afternoon North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry stated, as explosions were still continuing in the school gymnasium after 4 pm—three hours after the first explosions—that by then there were no hostages left in the gymnasium. But as noted on September 4, “after that people again started to escape from the building; later 100 bodies were found on the smoking floor.” As late as 4:50 pm, when CNN and the British SkyNews network were reporting that a huge number of dead hostages had been found, the authorities were still insisting that there were no dead or wounded inside the school. At 7:08 pm on Friday (September 3) it became known that some of the hostage children were still in the hands of terrorists who had not yet been neutralized.

The website published an especially detailed account on September 4, concluding that “the total number of hostages killed in Beslan has reached 460—and most likely that figure will continue to grow.” It attributed that datum to unofficial reports from the North Ossetian Health Ministry, according to which 250 bodies had been removed from the school on Friday (September 3)—and then another 60 during the following night. By 10 am on Saturday (September 4) yet another 80 bodies had been found, then 70 more by noon. Many of the bodies were mangled by explosions, and many of the adult women had been killed by gunfire—evidently as they were shielding their children with their own bodies.

Local residents gave an even higher figure, reporting from their own observations that some 350 dead bodies had been removed from the school on Saturday alone. Thus according to that account, the total number of fatalities had already reached 600 on that day. also reported on September 4 that hospital personnel in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia’s largest city, had been forbidden to return home or to communicate with their own families. Two doctors from different hospitals treating the wounded from Beslan said on condition of remaining anonymous that “the situation with the wounded is very different from what is being shown on television”—with more victims, and with those victims in more serious condition, than admitted by the authorities. The doctors said that the authorities were trying to prevent leaks about the numbers of wounded and dead.

The noted independent defense commentator Pavel Felgenhauer concluded in a column published in the Moscow Times on September 7 that only 10 percent of the hostages escaped unharmed.

Based on that record, one cannot have much confidence in the authorities’ statements about the number of ex-hostages who died from their wounds after having been rescued—or about the number who remain unidentified or missing.

One of the most dubious claims of the Russian authorities is that the terrorists included Arabs. Putin aide Aslambek Aslakhanov told journalists on September 4, according to, that the guerrillas included nine Arabs and one black man. All of these, he said, were killed in the battle—which of course makes it easier for the authorities to say whatever they like about their ethnicity. As of September 6, the authorities had yet to produce a black corpse.

Nor was there any independent evidence for this claim that such a large number of the hostage-takers were from outside the Russian Federation—most tellingly, no confirmation from the ex-hostages themselves. reported on September 4 that ex-hostages had told representatives of the Memorial human rights group that the terrorists included Ingush, Chechens, Ossetians and Russians. A September 7 account in Moskovski komsomolets listed seven specific names of hostage-takers said to have been identified by the Russian security agencies. Not one of them had an Arabic name.

Nevertheless, the Putin administration’s tight control of the electronic media—and the current readiness of many in the West to believe the worst of any political movement that includes armed Muslims—will probably give last week’s “Arab version” a long life. The prominent reformist politician Boris Nemtsov told Reuters “the official claim that international terrorism is behind the Beslan tragedy is a trick designed to divert responsibility away from the Kremlin.”

The authorities were strikingly contradictory about the number of hostage-takers—and reticent about their fate. Valery Andreyev, who heads the FSB in North Ossetia and who according to headed the operations staff for rescuing the hostages, said on September 4 that “one can confidently state that there were more than 30 bandits,” of which “26 were killed and three captured.” As noted, “he did not specify where the remaining guerrillas had disappeared to if there were more than 30.” Deputy General Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky gave another number—26—all of whom, he said, were killed in the September 3 assault. He specifically said, according to the report of September 4, that none of the terrorists had been captured alive. But by September 5, was quoting Fridinsky was saying that 32 terrorists had taken part in the operation and that the bodies of 30 of them had been found. The Associated Press on September 5 reported yet another number from another official: “Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said Saturday that 35 attackers—heavily-armed and explosive-laden men and women who were reportedly demanding independence for Chechnya—were killed in 10 hours of battles.” Estimates by ex-hostages, as compiled by Memorial, ranged as high as 40.

The Moscow daily Kommersant quoted ex-hostages and police as saying that three of the terrorists introduced themselves as Magas, Fantomas and Abdullah. As the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting observed on September 3, “The first two are noms de guerre of men believed to be associates of the most notorious Chechen warrior Shamil Basayev. Magas is Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush…Fantomas is a former bodyguard of Basayev, who some believe is an ethnic Russian. The third man, Abdullah, is Vladimir Khodov, who the paper described as ‘a well-known criminal’ from a Muslim family in North Ossetia.”

What became of the terrorists who were said by eyewitnesses (, September 4) to have broken out of the school? Reportedly some were holed up late Friday (September 3) in another part of the town where they were under siege by a federal force that included tanks, while others were trying to disguise themselves as civilians. (The Washington Post reported on September 5 that the federals also used tanks in the later stages of assault on the school building even though it was not clear that all the then-surviving hostages had escaped.) How many of these fugitives were caught alive, how many were killed, how many are thought to have escaped altogether? (It was said at 10:30 pm on September 3 that there were four such escapees, according to The authorities have not provided clear, consistent answers.

What about the head of the terrorists, who was said on Friday (September 3) evening to be under siege with several of his comrades in the school’s basement? The RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 5 that according to a source in the North Ossetian security organs, Magomed Yevloyev, described as head of the terrorist band, had been killed. Yevloyev had earlier been said to be one of the main leaders of the June raid on Ingushetia—and to have been killed by the special services shortly after that raid. This new report of his death may also turn out to be premature—and indeed, a few hours later, the website reported that according to the latest information all the terrorists had been killed and most of their corpses identified, and that the body of Yevloyev, or “Magas,” was not among them.

Of course nothing, certainly not the Russian authorities’ concealments and deceptions, can excuse the terrorists’ premeditated targeting of helpless children and their viciously brutal treatment of these captives., which on September 4 published an invaluable, hour-by-hour and sometimes almost minute-by-minute timeline of last week’s events, reported that Alla Gadziev, a mother who had been taken hostage along with her schoolboy son, said that the terrorists were shooting hostages lying on the floor of the school gymnasium. Another ex-hostage stated that the terrorists had begun to shoot the children even before the beginning of the assault on the building.

Nevertheless, something seems to have happened—or failed to happen—that caused the terrorists to behave more cruelly after the first day of the siege. According to on September 4, Memorial, which conducted detailed interviews with ex-hostages, found that during the first 24 hours the hostage-takers did indeed give food and drink to their captives; their behavior changed on Thursday. It was then that children found themselves forced to drink their own urine. According to an ex-hostage’s account reported by Novaya gazeta on September 6, it was precisely in reaction to the authorities’ false public statements about the number of hostages that the terrorists’ behavior changed.

In light of the 2002 Dubrovka tragedy, when it became clear after Russia’s commandos assaulted the Moscow theater that there had been no immediate need to do so because there was no imminent danger to the hostages’ lives, one must inevitably consider whether the September 3 assault on the school was intended. Considerable evidence suggests that it was not. There is the fact that it was carried out in daylight rather than taking advantage of the cover of darkness—and the success of some hostage-takers in escaping, at least temporarily. There is the lack of sufficient ambulances and fire trucks on the scene—though that could simply be another case of the authorities’ indifference to human life, as earlier shown by their handling of Dubrovka. A chilling example of that attitude was the September 4 statement of North Ossetian FSB commander Valery Andreyev, quoted by RIA Novosti, that “the operation for the rescuing of the hostages was completed successfully, though at the price of several officers’ lives.” Andreyev said nothing about the hostages’ lives.

There is also the manifest lack of crowd control—with enraged, gun-toting male residents of Belan so eager to rescue and avenge that they got in the way of the military professionals. ( reported on September 3 that local residents even lynched at least one of the terrorists as he tried to escape, a fact confirmed by a spokesman for the president of North Ossetia.) There is the fact that the elite commando units best equipped to conduct the assault were out of position at 1 pm on September 3, practicing mock assaults at a site some distance away. There is the testimony from several ex-hostages that the fatal 1 pm detonation took place by accident, with the breaking of tape that held explosives to the gymnasium’s basketball nets. (According to some versions, however, like that of Izvestia, the explosion took place only after the local residents opened fire. Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, told Novaya gazeta that he also believes relative stability could have been restored if these local residents could have been persuaded to stop shooting.)

Not all are convinced. In a September 5 analysis for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jeremy Bransten wrote that “the source of the explosions still remains unclear. Did the hostage takers unwittingly set off booby traps they had planted throughout the building, as some have suggested, or did Russian commandos disguised as medical personnel initiate hostilities by firing a rocket-propelled grenade or other weapon, as other versions have it?” He cited the military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer as one of the skeptics: “Felgenhauer says the idea that the special forces mounted a last-minute, spontaneous attack is not technically credible, as the offensive was backed up by attack helicopters – proving advance coordination: ‘Although there is an air base near Beslan, I know how much time it takes to transmit instructions to pilots. Even if the helicopter was fueled, armed, and waiting, and the pilots were already suited up—if it had been a spontaneous decision—they would have had to wait for instructions. An order would have had to be given. They would have had to get aboard, to warm up the engine. They could not have made it to the school in less than half an hour.'”

In any case, the chaotic nature of what happened on Friday (September 3) does not necessarily prove that the authorities had no intention of assaulting the school at some later point in time. Both the federal and the local authorities showed a remarkable lack of alacrity in seeking, or accepting, opportunities to negotiate with the terrorists. It was not until Friday (September 3) that presidential aide Aslambek Aslkakhanov appeared on the scene. He did not even try to enter the school complex, nor did North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov or Ingushetia president Murat Zyazikov, both of whose participation had specifically been requested by the terrorists. In fact, according to an account in Novaya gazeta in September 6, Zyazikov seems to have gone out of his way to stay as far from the events as possible.

It seems that the only prominent figure who actually entered the school building to negotiate seriously with the terrorists was former Ingushetia president Ruslan Aushev, whom the Putin administration has always disliked because of his open criticisms of both Chechen wars. Aushev told Novaya gazeta that the authorities’ failure to negotiate cost about “a day and a half.”

It was Aushev, and only Aushev, who actually won a real concession from the terrorists: the September 2 release of 26 hostages (mothers with infants and toddlers). reported on September 5 that Aushev had obtained a list of demands from the terrorists, and reportedly that list was in Putin’s hands some 15 minutes later; but Putin’s response remains unknown.

A September 4 account in provided further indications that the authorities had not sought to negotiate seriously with the hostage-takers. “An assault was inevitable and most likely was being planned during this whole period….From the statements of ex-hostages it has become clear that the authorities were refusing to continue negotiations…The guerrillas were unable to make telephone contact with any of the responsible officials of North Ossetia, including the president…they simply refused to pick up the phone….”

On the other hand, Chechen separatist diplomat Akhmad Zakaev confirmed in a September 5 interview with the Moscow Times that North Ossetia’s President Dzasokhov had telephoned him on September 2 to request his assistance in negotiating with the hostage-takers. Zakaev said that he had agreed to fly to the scene from London if he could possibly help on behalf of the underground Maskhadov government that he represents. The Kremlin refused to comment on whether it had authorized Dzasokhov’s invitation, but Zakaev opined that “knowing what a functionary Dzasokhov is and given what kind of responsibility was on his shoulders at the time … I don’t think he would have done it without the Kremlin’s sanction, even if it was his own initiative.”

A successful negotiation for which Zakaev could have shared the credit would have been a serious blow to the Putin administration’s strategy of demonizing Maskhadov and his circle as terrorists indistinguishable from the hostage-takers. On the other hand, it would have saved the lives of hundreds of children. How the Kremlin would have resolved this dilemma if events had not spun out of control on September 3 will probably remain a mystery.

Whatever the case, President Putin’s harsh television speech of September 4 suggested that he has not learned anything from the failures of his own policies. Without once mentioning Chechnya, he vaguely invoked “terrorists” as a homogeneous monolith and said that they want to destroy Russia as a state. As a remedy, he promised further government centralization and stronger police powers.