Evasion of responsibility by Russia’s highest officials continues to be a theme in the study of the Beslan disaster. Rustam Kaliev stressed to Chechnya Weekly that none of the federal ministers, such as the heads of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry, actually came to the scene at Beslan. Thus there was nobody in a high position to take responsibility—only the spetsnaz commandos, who would not have launched an unprovoked assault on their own initiative. Andrei Mironov, the veteran Moscow human-rights activist, suggested to Chechnya Weekly that the head of the regional section of the FSB for North Ossetia (who has since resigned) was pushed forward into a prominent role during the crisis precisely so that the national ministers could avoid responsibility.
The question of how many people really died in Beslan remains in dispute. As of September 23, according to Rustam Kaliev, another 6 of the federal commandos had died from their wounds, bringing these elite units’ total death count to 17. Among the hostages, Kaliev calculated that at least 500 died. On the other hand, a website maintained by Beslan residents (www.beslan.ru) listed by name some 1221 hostages as of September 27. Of these, 256 were listed as having died and another 57 as missing.
Andrei Mironov suggested that the difference between what he considered to be the true figure of 500 and the officially admitted figure of about 350 deaths “is not enough to be important for propaganda purposes.” He confessed himself to be genuinely puzzled about why the authorities were sticking to such a useless falsehood. He noted that the authorities have yet to publish a precise list of all the victims of the August bombing in a Moscow metro station, and suggested that this shows that the total number of fatalities from that terrorist attack was greater than officially admitted.
Kaliev confirmed previous reports that the dead included hostages who were deliberately murdered in cold blood on the siege’s first day—mostly adult males who would have been seen by the terrorists as the most likely to offer resistance. But unlike others, Kaliev said that these victims included not only fathers and male teachers, but older schoolboys.
Kaliev entered the shattered school building on September 4, when the smell of decaying corpses was still overwhelming. As late as September 10, he said, the building still contained body fragments that had not yet been removed.
Discussion also continues about the inflammatory effect on the Beslan terrorists of the Russian authorities’ disinformation about the number of hostages. It was striking that the official figure was initially 324 rather than something such as “about 300”. This appeared artificially precise, as if to make it seem as authoritative as possible. One ex-hostage told Rustam Kaliev that one of the terrorists reacted to this figure by saying that if the federals were going to insist that there were only 324, then they would receive only 324 alive.
Moscow political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky echoed other independent analysts when he told Chechnya Weekly that the Putin administration now has every political incentive to minimize rather than to exaggerate the number and scale of attacks by Chechen terrorists. He said that five years ago, when the need was to whip up public enthusiasm for invading Chechnya, “every accidental explosion of a gas line was blamed on the Chechens. Now it’s the opposite, with the government going out of its way to understate casualties. Terrorist acts now work against Putin politically, hence his practice of denial.”
Yet another unsettled question is the number of Beslan terrorists who escaped. Rustam Kaliev said that gunfire was still being heard from inside the school well after midnight on Saturday morning, September 4. Shots were being heard from elsewhere in the city that afternoon. He said that a wounded OMON serviceman was brought in at about mid-day on Sunday, September 5. Inside sources, he said, told him that as many as 20 terrorists escaped and that probably most of these were ethnic Ossetians, who could blend in and evade capture more easily. He said that there may have been cases in which such fugitive terrorists disguised themselves as medical personnel and then managed to recapture children who had left the school alive.
The flow of information from Russia’s security agencies about the Beslan atrocity has been growing ever scantier, Yelena Shesternina noted in an article for Russky kurier published on October 1. As expected, the investigative commission formed by the rubber-stamp federal parliament is also failing to produce convincing answers to the most important questions.
One point about which there now appears to be no doubt will reinforce concerns about the morale and reliability of the security agencies themselves. Investigators have found that the terrorists forced a local police major in North Ossetia’s Mozdok district to guide them along an unpatrolled route to Beslan. They captured Major Sultan Gurazhev about 20 miles from the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia, then released him after reaching Beslan. Gurazhev then simply went home. He was detained for several weeks on suspicion of being a co-conspirator with the terrorists, but has since been released.