Reporter Puts Forward Another Version Of Events

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 35

In the September 11 issue of Moskovski komsomolets, Aleksandr Khinshtein published a version of the Beslan events with details that apparently have not appeared elsewhere. He was vague about his sources, whom he simply called “eyewitnesses and participants,” but his article took a favorable view of members of the security services—especially their rank-and-file commandos—while sharply differing from the official version of events. The article went even further than other accounts in blaming the local residents for provoking the terrorists. It also provided details which, if true, are damning for the current leadership of North Ossetia, Ingushetia—and the Russian Federation.

Khinshtein’s version emphasized the terrorists’ unprecedented cruelty even on the first day of the siege. Though he did not contradict the many reports that the terrorists were providing food and water to the children during that first day (but stopped doing so on the second), he wrote that they began killing children—not just adults—on that day in order to pressure the authorities to restore the flow of water and electricity to the school. Four such children, he said, were murdered in that fashion with their bodies thrown out of the building. Thus, according to Khinshtein’s sources, as he put it, “the very first moves of the guerrillas were already making it clear that there was not going to be any ‘gentle’ outcome.”

That version of the terrorists’ behavior rings true with the eyewitness account of Kazbek Torchinov, a former member of the regional parliament. In an interview published by Novaya gazeta on September 10, he said that from his apartment opposite the school he saw the hostage-takers throw some 17 bodies out of a second-floor window between 1 pm and 3 pm on the siege’s first day.

In agreement with other accounts, Khinshtein described North Ossetian President Dzasokhov and his staff as being in a state of utter confusion. The journalist’s sources told him that on the first day, the terrorists demanded that one of the federal ministers come to negotiate, but that nobody did so. (Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky and presidential representative for the Southern Federal District Vladimir Yakovlev joined Dzasokhov in Beslan on the second afternoon—but did not directly contact the terrorists.) “Only with the arrival of the leaders of the FSB did something begin to be done,” wrote Khinshtein. “In essence, it was they who took upon themselves the task of leading operations. I would add that if they had not done so, everything might have ended in an even more horrifying way.”

(Khinshtein’s account would seem to confirm other indications that the North Ossetian FSB head Valery Andreyev was the key decision-maker on the scene. But if that is the case, then Andreyev and his FSB colleagues share responsibility for the lies about the number of hostages, which apparently helped fuel desperation both among the terrorists and among Beslan’s citizens and thus made the situation more likely to spin out of control. Khinshtein would seem to be giving the FSB more praise than it deserves.)

Khinshtein’s most original contribution to the study of the Beslan disaster is his highlighting of the role which, according to him, was played by Mikhail Gutseriev, former State Duma vice speaker and president of the Slavneft oil company. Gutseriev’s brother Khamzat ran for president of Ingushetia in 2002, but was defeated by the Kremlin’s favorite, Murat Zyazikov. Khinshtein did not mention that fact in his September 11 article, but credited the oil executive with “great experience in negotiating with the guerrillas” and in general having “serious authority in the Caucasus.” One gets the impression that Gutseriev himself was a key source for Khinshtein’s article, though the article did not identify him as such. The article quoted from their conversations in detail, as if written from a transcript.

According to Khinshtein, Gutseriev was urgently summoned to Beslan, where he conducted a series of telephone conversations with a hostage-take who used a nickname not seen in other accounts: “Sheikhu” (not “sheikh,” which has the same spelling and meaning in Russian as in English, but “Sheikhu”). This individual spoke Russian like a Slav rather than like a North Caucasian, and rejected Gutseriev’s invitation to conduct their conversation in Ingush.

Gutseriev had been empowered by Putin to conduct negotiations, he reportedly told the terrorist. (Khinshtein’s article did not specifically state that the oil executive had in fact been so empowered). Sheikhu responded by making a demand which has been confirmed by other accounts: that four prominent Russian citizens come to negotiate with him—namely Dzasokhov, Zyazikov, Aslakhanov and Roshal.

Zyazikov, as described by other accounts, was nowhere to be found. (According to Khinshtein he was tracked down only on the second day of the crisis—in Moscow’s prestigious President Hotel.) Though Dzasokhov was on the scene, he failed to respond to the terrorist’s demand and was, according to Khinshtein, “even afraid to pick up the telephone.” Reportedly Roshal then phoned Sheikhu and told him, “I am ready right now to go in and bring you water and medicines.” The reply: “If you come any closer than 30 meters you will be shot.”

“In and of himself,” wrote Khinshtein, “Roshal was not necessary to the terrorists. They wanted to receive all these people at the same time—so as to execute them on the spot.” Khinshtein failed to make it clear just how he learned this, but other accounts have depicted the high-ranking officials as at least having feared being killed if they had placed themselves in the terrorists’ hands. Khinshtein’s more general observation is undeniable: The guerrillas “considered Dzasokhov, Aslakhanov and Zyazikov to be apostates and traitors. They could not forgive Roshal for the fact that during the Nord-Ost crisis he relayed everything he learned to the special services and was not shy about saying so on television.”

Sheikhu reportedly rejected an invitation to talk with a Muslim cleric, telling Gutseriev that “if anyone except you phones me again, I will kill ten more hostages.” He also rejected an offer to exchange the schoolchildren for some 31 guerrillas who had been arrested after the June raid on Ingushetia, reportedly answering: “You don’t understand! We did not come here in order to haggle or negotiate. Either we get what we want, or we will die along with the children.” Gutseriev then asked, “What are your conditions?” Sheikhu: “We shall hand them over in writing.” Gutseriev: “To whom? Maybe to Aushev?” Sheikhu: “Aushev?…Let him come. We will guarantee him his life.”

(Note that Khinshtein’s narrative thus gives Gutseriev credit for first suggesting the services of Ruslan Aushev. Since Aushev was the only high-ranking figure who actually met with the terrorists face-to-face and won some life-saving concessions from them, it is not surprising that Gutseriev would want to share the credit.)

Hastily summoned from Moscow, Aushev entered the school building. According to Khinshtein he brought no weapons or “technical equipment” (presumably a reference to eavesdropping devices—and indeed, the article does not quote verbatim from Aushev’s conversation inside the school as it does from Gutseriev’s phone conversations). Interestingly, the terrorists reportedly did not search him; they took his word for it that he had nothing concealed on his person. They did not try to negotiate with him, but gave him a letter. “Half an hour later,” wrote Khinshtein, “the children of nursing age were released; they [i.e. the terrorists] did not give them to Aushev himself so as not to create the impression that he had convinced them of anything.”

Khinshtein did not quote verbatim from the text of the terrorists’ letter, but wrote that it was addressed to Putin and signed by “the servant of Allah, Shamil Basayev.” The letter reportedly stated five conditions for releasing the hostages: Putin must sign a decree ordering an end to the war in Chechnya; he must withdraw troops from there; Chechnya must become a member of the CIS as an independent state; Chechnya must remain within the ruble zone; and peacekeeping troops of the CIS must be sent to Chechnya and the North Caucasus. According to Khinshtein, the letter was immediately relayed to Putin, with whom Dzasokhov was in constant telephone contact.

(If Khinshtein’s account is accurate, this close monitoring of the situation by Putin reinforces the view that he personally decided that Dzasokhov and the others should not negotiate with the terrorists. But even without Khinshtein’s findings it is clear that Putin has worked with considerable success over the last five years to build a hyper-centralized, one-man system of government with virtually no checks and balances. At this point Putin can hardly avoid responsibility for the actions of his underlings.)

As depicted by Khinshtein, the FSB genuinely did not want to assault the building. For one thing, the local vigilantes surrounding the school were read to shoot anyone who attacked it: They understandably feared a repetition of the 2002 Dubrovka theater scenario. But even without that, wrote Khinshtein, the FSB’s first deputy director, Vladimir Pronichev, who had directed the assault on the Dubvroka theater in 2002, “from the very beginning spoke categorically against any military scenario. As a matter of principle, the FSB did not develop plans to attack the school.” (One has to wonder whether this latter point can be accurate: after all, in an unpredictable hostage situation, one should be prepared for the worst.)

Khinshtein depicted the local vigilante force as having received reinforcements from outside, sent by South Ossetia’s president Eduard Kokoity. (That detail, apparently not reported elsewhere, provides yet one more indication that the Chechen conflict is now spreading to more and more parts of the Caucasus.) The fact that the captive children were not receiving food or water was especially upsetting: “If not for that circumstance, their relatives would probably have behaved more calmly.” Whether or not that is true, it certainly seems to have been the view of Khinshtein’s sources.

According to Khinshtein, the authorities considered but rejected the idea of Putin’s signing a phony decree: “It was obvious that the terrorists would not be satisfied with a mere document and would demand that the decree be announced on all the television channels; after that there would have been no turning back.”

Then another idea was suggested: that of inviting Aslan Maskhadov to take part in negotiations. On September 2, Dzasokhov and Aushev phoned the underground separatist government’s London envoy, Akhmad Zakaev, who promised to relay the suggestion to its president. Zakaev phoned back late at night, wrote Khinshtein, and said: “Maskhadov is willing to make contact…We will need a guarantee that you will not trace the conversation and repeat the Dudaev scenario.” [The reference was to the 1996 killing of Maskhadov’s predecessor, whose location the Russian military pinpointed by means of electronic eavesdropping while he spoke on his mobile telephone.] A final decision was postponed until the morning of September 3—but Khinshtein’s article did not discuss whether such a decision was in fact reached before the fatal explosions of 1 pm that day.

On those explosions, Khinshtein’s account largely agreed with the widespread version that they began by accident. Some details unique to his version: Gutseriev and Sheikhu made telephone contact shortly after the chaos began, with the former shouting, “What have you gone and done?” Sheikhu: “You have deceived us, it’s now you who are to blame for everything!” Gutseriev: “But there’s no assault taking place.” By then, however, the situation was already beyond either side’s control.

According to Khinshtein’s version—contradicted by others—the elite Spetsnaz commandos stormed the building only after it was clear that no children remained inside. Three helicopters swooped low over the school, but the terrorists were so well-prepared that they managed to shoot one of them down.

Khinshtein’s account challenged the official version, according to which the terrorists were deliberately shooting children. Rather, he wrote, all those who died inside the building were victims of the crossfire, which began with massive barrages from the local vigilantes in response to the surprise explosions, after which the terrorists returned fire.

(A number of independent accounts disagree with Khinshtein on this point. For example, Aleksei Kozyrev, a member of a rescue squad which rushed to Beslan from Kabardino-Balkaria, just west of North Ossetia, told Novaya gazeta in an interview published on September 10 that “those monsters [i.e., the terrorists] were not just defending themselves, they were directing aimed fire at the children who were running away, at the doctors, and at us unarmed rescue workers. We were able to get into the school only because of the covering fire from the FSB guys.”)

The last phone conversation between Gutseriev and Sheikhu reportedly took place at 6 pm on September 3, with the latter screaming: “You and your Kremlin are to blame for everything.” The battle lasted until the final terrorist was killed at about 1 am on September 4. According to Khinshtein’s account—contradicted by others—not one terrorist escaped from the building. But 10 FSB commandos were killed and 20 wounded.

In sum, if Khinshtein is right—and major points of his version agree with those of other accounts—Putin and the top officials on the scene missed a major opportunity to negotiate with the terrorists and at least play for more time. In fairness, one should note that the final outcome might have been disastrous anyway, thanks to the extreme viciousness of this particular group of guerrillas and also to the inherent volatility of such a massive hostage situation. But the efforts of those in charge clearly fell short of what should have been. One might leave the last word with the eyewitness Kazbek Torchinov, the retired Beslan politician (note, however, that his list of officials’ names is slightly different from that of other accounts): “I was struck by the fact that they [the authorities] did not agree to the terrorists’ demand that Dzasokhov, Zyazikov, Roshal and Aushev—not Ruslan, but the federal [State] Duma deputy—all go [into the school] together for negotiations. Of course I guessed they [the terrorists] might have shot them. But all the same—instead of them they shot children!”