The trial before North Ossetia’s Supreme Court of Nur-Pashi Kulaev, the sole participant in the Beslan school seizure to be taken alive, continues to yield details that contradict the official version of the tragedy. Among the more startling testimony involves the reported presence of at least several Slavs among the hostage-takers – including a sniper who seemed to be in charge – who were not seen among the bodies of the terrorists killed during the September 3 assault by Russian security forces.
On July 28, Kazbek Misikov, who was held captive in Beslan’s School No. 1 along with his wife and two children, testified that he saw a “sniper” among the terrorists “who sometimes came down to drink coffee in the training room.” “He was big, red-haired, obviously not a Caucasian,” he said, adding, as Kavkazky Uzel reported on July 28, that he also had a red face. “And, what is more, he spoke Russian without an accent. For some reason, I thought that he was a Balt.” Misikov said he had a sniper’s weapon with numerous notches on it – presumably representing the number of kills – and that “when he came into the room we were forbidden to look at him.” Misikov, who said he managed to sneak looks at the putative sniper, said he did not see his body among the dead militants after the incident’s denouement.
Earlier, on July 21, another former hostage, Zarina Khabalova, testified about another apparently Slavic terrorist. “When I went on the first day [of the hostage seizure] to the toilet, on the stairs stood a woman of obvious Slavic ethnicity,” Kavkazy Uzel quoted Khabalova as saying. “She was smoking, and was in overalls. I talked about her at the prosecutor’s office, but no one is saying anything about this.” According to Kavkazky Uzel, one of the judges at the trial, Tamerlan Aguzarov, then asked Kulaev, the defendant, about the female terrorist. Kulaev said he had been asked about her during his initial interrogation and that his interrogators had referred to her as a “sniper,” but that he had not seen her and that she was not with the hostage-takers when they arrived at the school.
Novaya gazeta special correspondent Elena Milashina wrote from Vladikavkaz in the bi-weekly’s August 1 issue about the alleged Slavic snipers and other testimony. “In the testimony given in court by former hostages, a group of fighters – professional saboteurs – sharply revealed itself. All of them are united by a Slavic appearance, fair hair, proper Russian with an accent,” she wrote. “Among this group of people the hostages particularly remembered a Russian woman with fair hair tied in a pony tale, in black camouflage overalls, with a sniper rifle. She did not hide her face, was not a shakhidka [female suicide bomber], and smoked. Many hostages also speak about a tall, big red-haired man with a red face (the effect of capillaries located close to the surface of the skin), who spoke clear Russian, from time to time came into the gymnasium and whose orders were obeyed unquestioningly by the Colonel (Khuchbarov) [Ruslan Khuchbarov, the putative leader of the Beslan terrorists]. What is interesting is that the hostages were forbidden from looking at this man and forced to turn their heads away or put their hands over their eyes. But precisely because of this prohibition many people paid special attention to this person and were able to see his appearance. These [terrorists] were not among the bodies of the militants…” According to Milashina, on the third and final day of the Beslan crisis, “none of the hostages saw those Russian-speaking Slavic terrorists any more, which allows one to concluded or at least to rightfully ask the investigation: where are these people and could they have left the school during the night of September 2-3?”
Another former hostage, Zarina Tokaeva, testified that many of the terrorists spoke “pure Ossetian” in a way that “only an Ossetian can speak, without an accent.” “I am North Ossetian native, and I can’t be tricked in this,” Kavkazky Uzel quoted her as saying. The website also reported that Tokaeva asked the defendant, Kulaev, whether the terrorists had “accomplices” in Beslan. Kulaev responded that the militants “spoke with someone by telephone, but with whom, I don’t know.” Tokaeva then asked: “Were Ossetians with you?” Kulaev responded: “They were not Chechens or Ingushi; they spoke Russian.”
Misikov, an army veteran who served in a sapper battalion and therefore has expertise in mines and explosives, also testified that the bombs that his captors draped around School No. 1’s gymnasium were only hooked up to electronic detonators three hours before security forces stormed the school, when it became clear to the terrorists that an assault was inevitable. Asked by prosecutors why the militants had one of their number constantly keep a putative detonation pedal pressed down by foot at all times, Misikov answered that the pedal was in fact merely a non-operational prop and that the militants actually released the pedal on a number of occasions.
Misikov also told prosecutors he had no doubt that terrorists knew about everything going on outside the school and that they were getting the information “not through television” – implying that they were getting it from someone on the outside. Asked how he thought the militants got into Beslan, Misikov responded that the militants themselves made no secret of it. One of their leaders, named Ali, “told me that they had no problems whatsoever, at every [police] post they paid money and passed through,” Misikov said. Misikov said he counted 28 militants in the gym, but, like other former hostages, indicated he thought there were considerably more terrorists in the school than the official number of 32, although he said he could not prove it. “Judging by the intensity of the shooting, [there were] no fewer than 50,” Kommersant quoted him as saying. In any case, he said he was certain that three women suicide bombers were among the hostage-takers. “Two of them were slim, very young and clearly exhausted. And the third was taller and wore a veil,” Kavkazky Uzel quoted him as saying.
Asked by prosecutor Maria Semisynova about how the hostage-takers treated the hostages, Misikov responded: “At first they tried to get silence, they shot into the ceiling, but at the timid requests of the children, they let them go to the toilet. But after they found out that the number of hostages was being deliberately understated [a reference to the official estimate of 354 hostages], they became brutal – they could hit children, old people – and said: ‘It’s Dubrovka all over again; they’re preparing to storm’.” Misikov said he was certain that the explosion that preceded the assault on the school was “from the outside” given that “the windows flew inwards.” “After two explosions, some of the terrorists were already not in the school; that’s also for sure,” Kavkazky Uzel quoted him as saying.
According to Novaya gazeta special correspondent Elena Milashina, Misikov, along with other former hostages, also testified that there was “a group of militants who did not appear in the gymnasium, but they in particular made all the important decisions in negotiations with the operational anti-terrorist headquarters” [initially headed by North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov, who was then replaced by Federal Security Service (FSB) Deputy Director Vladimir Pronichev].
Another former hostage, Zarina Tokaeva, testified about what happened at the end of the hostage crisis, when explosions were followed by the storming of the school by security forces. “When the first explosion sounded, I fell and saw the ceiling,” Novaya gazeta quoted her as saying. “It began to burn and cave in. I saw the militants who were standing in the change-room. There was confusion on their faces. I heard them say: ‘You have been blown up by yours’. While I was recovering myself after the first explosion, the roof of the gymnasium was constantly being heavily bombed. Several children and I moved in a rush first from the gymnasium to the change-room and then to a second change-room. Everywhere there were children hiding and screaming from fear whom we picked up on the run. The room and the roofs of the change-rooms were being violently bombed constantly; it seemed like we would go from a change-room to another room, and that room would immediately start getting bombed. But the militants weren’t in the gymnasium. Why did they bomb it?”
Prosecutor Maria Semisynova said to Tokaeva: “You gave testimony in the preliminary interrogation that a militant adjusted a mine that was hanging over you, did something there with his hands, and that it exploded.” Tokaeva responded: “Yes, I remember that mine. It hung over me for three days. On the third day a militant came over and adjusted it. But when the first explosion sounded, that mine fell and did not explode. It laid next to me.” Semisynova: “But earlier you said something different, you had different testimony…Do you remember? Did that mine detonate, or not?” Tokaeva: “I remember that you questioned me. I was in the hospital, and you questioned me three times. I studied that mine face-to-face for three days. It did not detonate after the first explosion. From the first explosion, the walls of the gymnasium and the ceiling collapsed…” According to Novaya gazeta, Semisynova then interrupted her, saying: “No further questions.”
In May, Moskovsky komsomolets ran a series which presented evidence that heavy weapons, including the cannon of a tank, were used in the assault against the hostage-takers. The newspaper quoted from a report by an aide to the military prosecutor of the Vladikavkaz garrison, who stated that Shmel flamethrowers, RPG-25 rocket-propelled grenades and a T-72 tank were used during the assault on the school, which may have killed hostages or caused them “bodily injuries of various degrees of severity” (see Chechnya Weekly, June 1). Earlier this month, Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel acknowledged that commandos fired flamethrowers into the Beslan school gym, but adamantly insisted that the Shmel flamethrowers could not have sparked the inferno that burned the gym’s roof, the Moscow Times reported on July 21. Citing Jane’s Information Group, the English-language newspaper noted that while the Shmel is classified as a flamethrower, it in fact “launches rocket-propelled projectiles.” According to the Moscow Times, the version of the Shmel that Shepel said the commandos used, the RPO-A, has shells containing “fuel-air explosives that on detonation form a ball of fire, creating a powerful blast effect.”
During testimony given in the Kulaev trial on August 2, two former hostages told North Ossetia’s Supreme Court that the first explosion on September 3 took place not inside the gymnasium, but came in from the outside, Kavkazky Uzel reported. Irina Dzutseva said that the explosion blew her from the window to the center of the gym. Fatima Gutieva testified: “Explosives were hanging directed over me; if they had detonated, I would have been left without a head.” Another witness, Zemfira Agaeva, who was held hostage in the school along with her nine-year-old son, who was one of the more than 150 children killed, confirmed earlier reports that a large number of weapons were pre-positioned in the school prior to the hostage taking. She said she saw beneath the floor of one of the school’s corridors “a huge pile of weapons” in “long and short dingy green boxes” that was being guarded by “a person with a scar.”
Also on August 2, 32-year-old Marina Zhukaeva, died of injuries sustained while a hostage in School No. 1. Her death brought the total number of those killed in Beslan to 331.