Russian special forces on September 3 took control of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, which was seized by gunmen on September 1. Fighting broke out in the early hours of September 3 after the hostage-takers agreed to allow the removal of the bodies of people killed in the initial takeover. The removal of the bodies, however was accompanied by explosions, after which some of the hostages apparently attempted to escape the school and were fired on by their captors, prompting the security forces to storm the building. Security forces reportedly blasted holes in the walls of the school to facilitate the hostages’ escape. The school’s roof collapsed, apparently as a result of an explosion detonated by the captors, who had mined the building. According to initial reports, at least five of the captors were killed and 150-200 children were hospitalized, 20 with serious injuries. Interfax reported that at least five children were killed. The casualty figures, however, are likely to rise. Thirteen captors reportedly managed to escape the building and hide in buildings near the school. Some of them had apparently changed into civilian clothing, and two female terrorists reportedly escaped with children. Russian commandos reportedly attacked buildings where some of the gunmen had fled. Two hours after the school was stormed, intermittent heavy gunfire and explosions could be heard on live feeds from Russian news channels and CNN, which also showed attack helicopters circling overhead. North Ossetia’s Interior Ministry said there had been no plans to storm the building, but that this became necessary when some of the hostages tried to escape and were fired on by the terrorists (CNN, Interfax, MosNews, Gazeta.ru, September 3).
The previous day of the hostage crisis had seen a rare happy moment when the gunmen released 26 hostages — 11 women and 15 children, including several infants — thanks to the mediating efforts of former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev (Russian agencies, September 2).
Several of the hostages freed on September 2 said that the number of people being held by the militants in the school was far greater than the official number of 354 given by the head of the North Ossetian branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Valery Andreyev. Adel Itskaeva, who was freed along with her three-year-old daughter, said 1,020 people were being held captive (Gazeta, September 3). Another freed hostage, 27-year-old Zalina Dzandarova, put the number at 1,500 (Kommersant, September 3). While initial reports put the number of hostage-takers at around 17, Zalina Dzandarova, the freed hostage, told Gazeta that there were around 30 gunmen in the school. She said that two females among the captors had blown themselves up along with several male hostages in one of the school’s corridors (Gazeta, September 3).
Various media reported that the hostage-takers were being led by Magomed Evloev, an Ingush “Wahhabi” field commander who is allied with Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basayev and reportedly led the June raids in Ingushetia (see EDM, June 25, 30). Another separatist field commander, Doku Umarov, was also reportedly among the captors. (Izvestiya, Gazeta, Moscow Times, September 3). On the first day of the crisis, a man who answered a telephone in the school and identified himself as the hostage-takers’ “press secretary” said that they were part of the Second Group of Salakhin Riadus Shakhidi (New York Times, September 1). That group, which reportedly is led by Basayev and carried out the Ingushetia raids, was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in April of this year. Basayev led the June 1995 hostage raid on the Stavropol town of Budennovsk, which killed 129 people. North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzatiyev, citing “preliminary information,” said the hostage-takers included Ossetians, Ingush, Chechens and Russians (RosBusinessConsulting, September 2).
The presence of Ingush among the hostage-takers is potentially explosive given the brief territorial war that North Ossetian militia backed by the Russian military fought against Ingushetia in 1992, in which hundreds of people were killed and thousands of Ingush driven from their homes. Indeed, Leonid Roshal, the pediatrician decorated by President Vladimir Putin for his role in attempting to mediate the October 2002 Moscow theater siege and who tried to mediate this hostage crisis, warned that a “bad outcome” this time could result in “a war between fraternal peoples” that could claim “thousands of lives” (RTR, Agence France-Presse, September 2).
Akhmed Zakaev, special envoy to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, told the pro-separatist Chechenpress website he had told Ruslan Aushev and North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov during “telephone negotiations” that Maskhadov was ready to mediate the crisis personally “if the Russian side can guarantee his security and create at least the minimal conditions for work in this direction.” Zakaev said Aushev and Dzasokhov told him that the captors were demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya (Chechenpress.com, September 3). Zakaev had earlier told the Prague-based Caucasus Times that “Chechen resistance forces” led by Maskhadov “have nothing to do with the hostage crisis in North Ossetia” and that “a third force that brought Russian President Vladimir Putin to power” is behind the recent spate of terrorist attacks, including the hostage seizure, the downing of two airliners and the suicide bombing outside a Moscow metro station (Caucasustimes.com, September 1).
Putin, for his part, called the North Ossetia hostage seizure a “horrible” act, particularly because of the children involved, and said it is aimed not only at “private citizens of Russia but against Russia as a whole.” He said, however, that the main goal was to save “the life and health” of the hostages. “All the actions of our forces, who are dealing with freeing the hostages, will be devoted to solving this task,” he said (Reuters, September 2).