Beslan hostage-takers were able to flee, soldier says

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The Independent Online

Russian authorities captured one of the men who masterminded and led the Beslan school siege and are interrogating him although he has been officially declared dead, a newspaper claims.

A man identified as Vassily K who says he was in the botched operation to free the hostages on 3 September has also said the authorities dramatically played down the number of hostage-takers and that many of the mostly Chechen militants were able to flee.

His revelations, in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, punch a gaping hole through the official version of events and are corroborated, in part, by a leading member of the parliamentary commission investigating the tragedy, and by witnesses.

At the time, the authorities claimed that 32 rebels seized the school, that none escaped and that just one was captured alive. And they insisted that a man called Vladimir Khodov, said to have been one of the siege masterminds and a close associate of the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, was killed when Russian special forces stormed the besieged school.

But Vassily K, who is a serving commando, said: "I saw Khodov being interrogated [by FSB security service officials]. At one point he produced a 50-rouble note and said, 'Thanks to that piece of paper, I passed through all the checkpoints and thanks to it again in two years from now I will be out of jail and I will again kill for cash'.

"Throughout the questioning, he [Khodov] was insolent and self-confident. On the night of 4 September he was taken to Moscow and where he is now I do not know." A female suicide bomber or "black widow" was also claimed to be among the detained, and Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the only person to be officially captured alive, is said to be the third detainee.

Vassily K claimed that as many as 49 rebels were killed during the siege (not 32), that three were taken alive (not one) and that 13 others managed to flee by disguising themselves in civilian clothes and blending into the crowds of local people.

After the siege was broken, with the loss of at least 344 lives, more than half of them children, Vassily said some 47 assault rifles were seized. He also suggested the rebels were so organised that they had "cased the joint" weeks in advance and ensured all the tall trees surrounding the school were cut down, affording a clear field of fire.

His claims coincided with an announcement from Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Deputy Prime Minister, who said he and his fighters had killed 22 separatist rebels, including the man who masterminded his father's death on 9 May. Akhmad Kadyrov, Chechnya's Moscow-backed President, was blown up as he reviewed a military parade in Grozny, the republic's capital.

"Emir Suleiman or Khairulla was among the dead, the man who publicly claimed responsibility for the act of terror," Kadyrov was quoted as saying. "It was our revenge." This is not the first time the authorities' version of events has been called into question. They initially put the number of hostages at less than 500; the real number turned out to be more than double that.

They also insisted that the militants had made no demands; a detailed wishlist emerged soon afterwards. The number of dead - which has risen to 344 - has also been consistently played down.

Questions also remain about the way in which Russian special forces broke the siege, with MPs claiming that tanks and flame-throwers were used after local men opened fire with their own weapons.

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