On February 6 Yuri Ivanov, a Communist deputy in the Russian State Duma, declared that President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered Russian forces to use grenade launchers to fire on a school building to end the siege in Beslan nearly three years ago. In September 2004, a terrorist group seized a school in this North Ossetian city, holding some 1,000 hostages for three days. According to Ivanov, a member of the parliamentary commission that investigated the tragedy, Putin’s order triggered the chaos that resulted in the deaths of 334 people, mostly children.
Ivanov said that Putin had ordered the assault on the school to prevent Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader at that time, from coming to Beslan. Ivanov claimed that Putin was afraid that Maskhadov would manage to persuade the terrorists to release all hostages. Maskhadov would become a hero while Putin, who had refused to negotiate with the militants, would be the loser (Polit.ru, February 6).
Last December Ivanov refused to sign the final report of the Duma investigation commission, because it concluded that the hostages had died when the terrorists detonated explosive devices that had been placed in the school’s gym.
Ivanov insists that it was the Russian Special Forces that opened fire first, and that they could only start the assault if they were ordered to do so from above. “From my point of view,” he declared, “such an order could be made only by one man: President Vladimir Putin. ” He added, “Russia has such an authoritarian system that none of the regional leaders would dare to order an assault of such a scale.”
Ivanov said that Putin had sent Vladimir Pronichev and Vladimir Anisimov to Beslan to manage the crisis; both men were deputies of the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev. Ivanov singled out Pronichev, who had headed the anti-terrorist operation in Moscow in October 2002 when terrorists seized a theater, taking over 700 people hostage. According to Ivanov, Pronichev also headed the operation in Beslan, leading a special force independent of the local Anti-Terrorist Center in Beslan. Ivanov insisted that Pronichev and his men had a separate room on a separate floor, and they had regular telephone talks with Moscow and with Putin himself.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, refused to comment on Ivanov’s accusations. He only said that conclusions of the investigative commission were important and impartial (Polit.ru, February 6).
However, Ivanov is not the only dissident in the commission. Duma deputy Yuri Savelyev also took exception with the official version. The former rector of the St. Petersburg Institute of Military Mechanics, Savelyev was the only member of the commission to be an expert on the physics of combustion and explosions. Last summer Savelyev issued an alternative report that was posted on Pravdabeslana website. This report, based on “testimonials of the hostages, the investigation of the nature and timing of the destruction in the gym, the spent casings from single-shot weapons, photographic records, and using formulas to calculate the strength of the explosions,” concluded that the two explosions inside the gym at 1:03 pm on September 3 were the result of shots from rocket-propelled flame-throwers and RPG-7V1 grenade launchers. According to the report, the shots were made from the five-story House No. 37, located in front of the gym. These shots destroyed the attic of the gym and the burning remains of the roof rained down on the hostages.
Savelyev’s report also said that other hostages had been killed when tanks shelled the main buildings of the school. The report also argues that the bombs set up in the gym were not linked with each other. A few exploded later as a result of gunfire between the troops and the militants, not because they were activated. This information suggests that the gunmen never planned to blow up the school (see Pravdabeslana.ru, August 28, 2006).
The official investigation team, as well the leadership of the parliamentary investigative commission, tried to discredit the conclusions of the Savelyev report. Commission chair Alexander Torshin called the report “a deliberate falsification of the data” and “speculation.” Torshin accused Savelyev of “playing political games.”
Nevertheless, the Mothers of Beslan and the Voice of Beslan, two organizations formed by relatives of the dead hostages, agreed with the Savelyev report and ignored the official report of the Commission, which was accepted by the State Duma on December 24. Inspired by Ivanov’s later statement, the relatives appealed to the parliament of North Ossetia, asking them to discuss the Savelyev report. Savelyev agreed to present his report in the Ossetian parliament if the deputies asked him to come (Kavkazky Uzel, January 21).
The parliament of North Ossetia refused to discuss the report, saying that everyone should wait for the results of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office’s official investigation, which is still underway. In response, Ella Kesaeva, the leader of the Voice of Beslan, accused the Ossetian deputies of cowardice.
The alternative Savelyev report and Ivanov’s statement could seriously damage Kremlin’s efforts to portray the rebels in the North Caucasus as terrorists. Moreover, the independent investigation on Beslan now has taken a different turn with this new revelation and strongly supports those who argue that the Russian war on terror in the Caucasus is not a clear-cut matter.