'Accidental' bomb blast was trigger for firefight

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The Independent Online

Russian security forces admitted yesterday that the trigger for the confused and bloody end to the Beslan school siege was probably accidental, throwing the shortcomings of their response into sharper relief.

The hours of intense, chaotic violence began shortly after 1pm, local time, when emergency workers arrived by agreement to collect dead bodies which had been lying in the open since the beginning of the siege.

But to the horror of the parents and relatives watching keenly from beyond the security cordon, 300 yards away, the emergency vehicle sent for the handover of the corpses was met by two huge explosions from inside the building.

Security officials initially said that this was the planned start of a massacre of the hundreds of schoolchildren held inside the gym. But they conceded yesterday that an accidental detonation of the first bomb in the gym had probably set off the second, throwing the hostage-takers into as much confusion as the Russian government forces outside.

Hungry, thirsty and now panicking, a group of children started to escape through the chaos. Then, with a hole blown in the wall of the gym, more hostages, naked and bloody, poured out to safety. The terrorists' response was to shoot at them from behind, and the Russian forces felt obliged to return fire - a gun battle that would not end until darkness fell. The four military helicopters overhead were powerless to intervene. Hundreds of relatives and journalists rushed towards the roadblock as a large plume of smoke gathered above the school, and events took an even more deadly turn. The roof of the building collapsed on to the hostages and gunmen, probably the result of the exploding bombs.

A number of the terrorists were reported to have disguised themselves in clothes stolen from the adult hostages.

They pushed their way through the crowds of onlookers, pursued by the security services into the surrounding streets. Russian officials, however, were saying yesterday that all the terrorists were killed - one of many contradictions that remain.

Only at 2.30pm, an hour and a half after the first explosions, did Russian commandos blow a hole in the wall of the gym, and only at 3.15pm were most of the hostages evacuated. Even then, the rattle of gunfire was punctuated by a constant series of explosions as the hostage-takers fired grenade launchers and booby-trapped bombs were exploded.

The few available ambulances were unable to cope - a shortage which was to prove a major failing by the authorities. Hundreds of wounded adults and children were ferried to local hospitals in private cars and vans.

Desperate parents pushed other emergency vehicles out of the way to clear a path for ambulances when they belatedly arrived. The chaos was worsened by armed civilians who had gathered at the scene. Having been allowed to encroach too close to the school, the civilians too opened fire, making a confused situation even worse. Security forces found it impossible to distinguish between hostages, terrorists and vigilantes, probably increasing the death toll. By this stage, what remained of the gym had caught fire, showering burning rubble on the piles of dead and injured children trapped.

The Russian authorities claimed to have control of the complex by mid-afternoon. But this was very far from the case, as the remaining terrorists dug themselves in towards the back of the school. It also emerged that a number of hostages were still in captivity, some in the basement. At around 4pm another 20 seriously wounded children were evacuated for treatment, and gunfire continued. By 5pm it was reported that more than 500 were injured, though the horrific scale of the death toll was yet to be disclosed.

Soon after another large explosion towards 8pm Russian officials finally said the fighting had reached a close - although this was only confirmed by the crisis centre more than two hours later, at 10.15 pm. Four terrorists were said to remain at large.

Clive Fairweather, who was second-in-command of 22 SAS Regiment when it brought a dramatic end to the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980, told The Independent on Sunday the accidental explosions on Friday made things more difficult for the Russian special forces. "They were forced to mount a hasty response," he said. "This will always be far less successful than a planned set-piece, which is normally better mounted in the dark, using the superiority of night sights.

"It is probable most of the children killed were already dead before the special forces blew their way in. It would appear clear that the inner and outer cordon comprising police and militia could have been far better co-ordinated, as some terrorists were able to break through and escape."