Beslan siege investigation chief points finger at local law-enforcement officers

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The Independent Online

After 15 months and more than 1,000 witness interviews, the chairman of the official inquiry into last year's Beslan school massacre broke his silence yesterday, launching a devastating critique of local law enforcement authorities.

In what he called his "preliminary findings", Alexander Torshin, the head of Russia's parliamentary investigation into the events of 1-3 September 2004, confounded critics who have accused him of being soft on the authorities.

Though his criticism did not satisfy Beslan's bereaved mothers, it went further than anyone expected - and was especially damning when it came to local law enforcement officials in North Ossetia, the Russian republic of which Beslan is part.

Mr Torshin revealed that local police had been ordered to step up security around educational establishments two weeks before the tragedy but had done nothing. He made it clear he thought them guilty of "negligence, incompetence and carelessness".

Mr Torshin disclosed that, acting on intelligence that schools might be targeted by pro-Chechen militants, Russia's Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, had sent a telegram to local police two weeks prior to the school seizure, as had his deputy. In the two telegrams the police were told to beef up security around all schools on 1 September, the first day of the school year. The warning was ignored and a solitary policewoman was on duty at Beslan's School No 1 when 1,128 children and parents were taken hostage by a group of about 30 gunmen. In the bloodshed that followed 331 innocents lost their lives, 186 of whom were children.

"There were warning telegrams ... on 21 August and 31 August 31," Mr Torshin told the Russian parliament yesterday. "These instructions could have averted a terrorist act or hindered it being carried out. However they were not fulfilled."

He said the terrorists appeared better organised than the police: "You can see how our police worked from the fact that the bandits had a plan of the school, while the police had to hunt for [a plan of the school] for a long time," he said.

Nor did the terrorists even go to great lengths to conceal themselves. "The camp where the rebels [prepared the attack] was only 70 metres from the road. We saw it. We were there. It was only 550 metres from a village, they did not hide themselves."

Mr Torshin said the operation to free the hostages was also badly bungled. Arguing that it was "plagued by shortcomings", he said that local law enforcement officials had simply not been up to the job. "The list of failures and shortcomings is long. Many law enforcement officers did not know how to act in an emergency situation."

He reserved special scorn for Valery Andreyev, the head of the local FSB security service, whom he chided for poor inter-services coordination. Mr Andreyev was the man who decided to claim there were just 354 hostages.

The claim was heard by the terrorists on the radio and a separate inquiry has suggested that it angered them and may have prompted them to kill a group of male hostages who were shot and thrown out of the school's windows.

However, in remarks that will enrage Beslan's bereaved mothers Mr Torshin rejected public criticism of the use of flame-throwers and grenade launchers by special forces, arguing that the weapons saved lives and were only used in the school when it was empty of hostages. He also dismissed a controversial theory that the siege was broken when a Russian sniper shot a militant whose feet was resting on a detonator pedal, arguing that the militant in question was obscured from view by a curtain.

Mr Torshin said he would present fuller findings in the near future and made it clear he intended to talk about the role of federal authorities too. But Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent MP, criticised him for not examining the failings of those authorities now. "It is attempt to put the blame on regional and local law enforcers and not on the leaders of the federal ministries who in my view bear responsibility for what happened," Mr Ryzhkov said. "They didn't take preventive measures [and] they didn't check how their orders were being carried out."

Five senior policemen have been charged with criminal negligence and one of the militants, the only one to be captured alive, continues to stand trial for his role in the massacre.

Though Mr Torshin did not mince his words about official failings, he reminded people that the real culprits were the pro-Chechen rebels. "It is the terrorists who came to attack a school who are the main people to blame. They came to destabilise the situation in the North Caucasus," he said.

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