Beslan: The unanswered questions

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The Independent Online

How prepared were the hostage-takers? Very. The gym, where 1,000 children were corralled with their teachers and parents, was wired with explosives. Investigators say arms, explosives and ammunition were smuggled into the school - and possibly buried under the gym floor - during the summer holiday by militants disguised as builders who bribed their way across the border. Their demands changed during the siege, beginning with a call for the release of jailed guerrillas and ending with a call for a Chechnyan republic.

How prepared were the hostage-takers?

Very. The gym, where 1,000 children were corralled with their teachers and parents, was wired with explosives. Investigators say arms, explosives and ammunition were smuggled into the school - and possibly buried under the gym floor - during the summer holiday by militants disguised as builders who bribed their way across the border. Their demands changed during the siege, beginning with a call for the release of jailed guerrillas and ending with a call for a Chechnyan republic.

How were the hostages treated?

With unadulterated cruelty. They were refused food and water despite the searing heat which forced many children to take off their clothes. When news reached the hostage-takers that President Putin was not flying to Beslan to negotiate, the children were refused access to the lavatory. After three days, they were drinking urine to avoid dehydration. Rape has also been reported.

Who were the hostage-takers?

There were 35 of them, mainly Chechens, Ingush and one North Ossetian. But it is unclear whether the operation was masterminded by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen guerrilla warlord who has mounted a number of attacks outside Chechnya. Although Moscow says 10 of the captors were Arabs, hostages said they heard them speaking in Russian, not Arabic. It is important for the Kremlin to prove that the hostage-takers were representatives of "international terrorism." Some Russian officials say they were aided and financed by al-Qa'ida.

How did it end?

Accidentally, chaotically and disastrously. Russian security forces never intended to storm the school but a massive explosion was heard - possibly a woman suicide bomber blowing herself up, or a bomb suspended between basketball hoops in the gym - after an agreement for Russian forces to recover dead bodies. Russians fired back as escaping hostages were fired on by their captors. Armed locals rushed in through a security cordon that was not properly policed.

What was the real motive for the siege?

Kremlin officials suggest the terrorists were trying to destabilise Mr Putin's government. The siege came after suicide bombers brought down two planes, including one flying to Sochi, where Mr Putin was on holiday. Some suggest the Chechens wanted to show they could organise their own version of 11 September.

What will this mean for Putin's approach to Chechnya, and his future?

In his first address to the nation, Mr Putin did not mention Chechnya by name but suggested that the terrorists' aim was to spread a "fratricidal bloodbath" throughout the troubled north Caucasus region. He wants a shake-up of the security forces on Russia's southern flank and a "new approach" to law enforcement. After the Kursk nuclear submarine tragedy in 2001, Putin's popularity plunged when he chose not to interrupt his holiday. This time he made a trip to Beslan on Saturday night to see the victims. Mr Putin's popularity ratings are unlikely to change radically. He has plenty of time to weather the storm, having been re-elected last March.

Will it backfire as far as the hostage-takers are concerned?

Russians have never had much sympathy for the Chechen separatist cause, particularly since the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow that killed 300 people. Any residual support will have evaporated because of their choice of children as targets and their brutal treatment of them.

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