Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 1

Testifying in the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, officially the only surviving terrorist involved in the Beslan school seizure, Izrail Totoonti, secretary for the North Ossetian parliament’s vice-speaker, told the North Ossetian Supreme Court on December 22 that Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was ready to come to Beslan an hour before the first explosion ripped through the school seized by terrorists in early September 2004. “On April 7, 2005, as a member of a parliamentary commission, I phoned Akhmed Zakaev,” Interfax quoted Totoonti as testifying, referring to Maskhadov’s London-based emissary. “In this talk I learnt that in the early hours of September 2, 2004, Zakaev got in touch with Maskhadov through third persons to discuss Maskhadov’s possible arrival in Beslan to help free the hostages.” According to Totoonti, Maskhadov agreed to come to Beslan, and Zakaev informed North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov of this decision. “This happened on September 3, 2004, at 9 a.m. British summer time, meaning it was already noon here in North Ossetia and the hostage release operation began an hour later,” he said, adding that Maskhadov’s sole demand was his unhindered passage to the school. “Both Maskhadov and Zakaev were ready to fly to Beslan, to any North Ossetian airport, to negotiate with the militants but, unfortunately, they failed due to the time difference.”

On December 28, the Russian parliamentary commission investigating the circumstances surrounding the Beslan tragedy released its preliminary report. The commission’s head, Deputy Federation Council Speaker Aleksandr Torshin, put most of the blame on local authorities, saying they committed a number of mistakes during the crisis and that the high death toll—330 hostages killed, more than half of them children—could have been avoided. Torshin also claimed during questioning by members of parliament on December 28 that Maskhadov “never spoke with anyone at all,” Ekho Moskvy reported. “Yes, efforts were made to contact him, through mediators and through Zakaev,” the radio station quoted the commission head as saying. “If you don’t believe us, then you can believe [journalist] Anna Politkovskaya, who contacted Zakaev three times. She came to talk to our commission…Politkovskaya contacted Zakaev three times—you know, some time we will have to publish the words the journalist used to try to persuade Zakaev to make Maskhadov drop everything and, without any preconditions, come to get the children out. The replies were evasive—along the lines that the communications were only one-way, and so on—so there was nothing to stop, because there was absolutely no contact with him.”

Akhmed Zakaev, however, offered a different version of events: he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s North Caucasus Service on December 28 that Dzasokhov and former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev had tried to negotiate the hostages’ release and that Aslan Maskhadov was ready to assist in negotiations with the hostage-takers. RFE/RL on December 29 quoted Zakaev as saying Dzasokhov and Aushev had called him on the morning of September 2, 2004, and that they had discussed just “one issue.” “They told me that the people who had seized the children had a demand—to end the war [in Chechnya],” Zakaev said. “And that’s why [Aushev and Dzasokhov] had contacted me. They discussed the possibility of Aslan Maskhadov or someone from our government intervening in order to determine what was going on.” Zakaev said he managed to contact Maskhadov that night and told him about their request. “He told me to do everything possible to get there [to Beslan],” Zakaev told RFE/RL. “He also asked me to tell Dzasokhov that he [Maskhadov] was ready to personally participate in saving the children, keeping anything bad from happening to them.”

Zakaev said he reported back to Dzasokhov on September 3: “[Dzasokhov] thanked me and said that he had not expected us to act any differently, and that he needed two hours in order to the arrange how I would get [to Beslan].” Zakaev recounted. “He said he needed to hold some discussions in order to get that done. But before half an hour had passed, the storming of the school began. And everything that happened, happened.” According to Zakaev, Maskhadov also decided to go to Beslan. “We didn’t demand any kind of guarantees; we just wanted them to help him get there,” Zakaev told RFE/RL. “So that we didn’t have to organize it ourselves. They say that special security services contacted me. But there were no security forces. There was only Dzasokhov and Aushev. But I have no doubt the security services were standing behind them. I also have no doubt that the security services that were behind them were there to obstruct the negotiations that Dzasokhov was involved in. Their main task was to prevent us from coming there, and to do that they began that spontaneous storm [of the school].”

Among other things, Aleksandr Torshin reported on December 28 that his commission had concluded that the use of flamethrowers by Federal Security Service special forces in charge in Beslan could not have caused the fire on the roof of School No. 1. The roof subsequently collapsed, claiming the lives of many of the Beslan victims. As the Associated Press reported on December 28, Torshin also said that federal Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev and his deputy had sent telegrams less than two weeks before the hostage seizure instructing the North Ossetian police to beef up security on the first day of school, but that only a single policewoman was posted outside the Beslan school the day of the siege, and she was taken hostage. On December 27, federal Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel said in a statement that an expert committee set up by federal prosecutors to investigate the tragedy had not discovered any mistakes by the federal authorities in dealing with the siege. Mothers of the children killed in the crisis dismissed these conclusions as a “ruse,” Agence France-Presse reported on December 28. “We believe the work of this committee was not objective…The main aim was to cover up for top officials,” Susanna Dudieva, head of the Beslan Mothers victim support group, told AFP.

Torshin also said that the gunmen who seized Beslan’s School No. 1 had a back-up target – a school in the village of Nesterovskaya in Ingushetia—and that 11 terrorists were held in reserve, four of whom were arrested.