One siege, two stories: how the truth about School One is gradually emerging

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Who were the hostage-takers?

Who were the hostage-takers?

The official version

According to the Kremlin, the terrorists were a mix of hardened mercenaries, some from the Arab world and others from the breakaway republic of Chechnya and the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia. The Russian authorities said 10 of the hostage-takers were "Arab fighters", that one of the men was from North Ossetia and that the rest were Ingush or Chechens.

Several shakidki or female suicide bombers, known as "black widows", were also reported to be inside. Islamist fighters from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan were also said to be involved, as were "Slavs".

Russian president Vladimir Putin said the fighters were definitely linked to Al-Qa'ida and international terrorism and they were helped by a shadowy third force who still thought Russia - as one of the world's sole nuclear powers -was a threat. The group was allegedly financed by Al-Qa'ida with money from Saudi Arabia. Estimates of how many terrorists were involved varied wildly but the authorities initially insisted that only 17 to 20 took part.

The reality

The hostage-takers turned out to be far more numerous than the authorities claimed and numbered at least 32. Hostages say they didn't see any Arabs and that the terrorists spoke Russian (albeit heavily accented) among themselves the whole time. However, one of the captured fighters, who looked as if he had been "heavily interrogated", said the group was made up of Arabs, Uzbeks and other nationalities, contradicting the hostages' accounts.

Many of the hostage-takers appear to have taken part in huge rebels incursions into Ingushetia from Chechnya in June which left up to 90 people dead. Western intelligence sources say they are still checking information which suggests that some of the hostage-takers were from Syria or Jordan.

Russian government sources say the terrorists were led by four men codenamed Abdullah, Fantomas, the Colonel and Magas respectively. Abdullah is reported to be an Ossetian called Vladimir Khodoyev who has fought with Basayev in the past. Fantomas, who is variously described as Chechen or Russian, also apparently has close links to Basayev having been one of his many bodyguards. The Colonel is reportedly Russian and is remembered by hostages as being a regular presence in School One's gym. The fourth man is simply known as Magas, a nickname taken from Ingushetia's capital city. Earlier this year he emerged as the leader of a militant group called the Ingush Jamaat which is closely allied to Basayev's Chechen guerrilla outfit. Magas was the man who led the raids into Ingushetia in June and the authorities claim his real name is Ali Taziyev and that he is a former Ingush police officer who mysteriously disappeared in 1998.

Hostages also claim that at least one of the terrorists was a "tall powerfully built black man" and officials also talk about one of the terrorists being from Qatar.

How many hostages?

The official version

Lev Dzugaev, the articulate spokesman for North Ossetia's president, swore to journalists that exactly 354 hostages were trapped inside the school. He said the figures had been meticulously compiled by drawing up a list based on information garnered from waiting relatives.

The reality

There were 1,181 hostages actually held in the school. The hostages included children, their pre-school siblings who had accompanied them for the day, mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, teachers, the school's administrative staff and people who lived in the building's immediate vicinity. Russian media claim that the authorities' deliberate down playing of the number of hostages infuriated the terrorists who became even more determined.

The storming of the school

The official version

Moscow was forced to send in special forces after two explosions rang out inside the school and the hostage-takers opened fire on the panicking children, shooting them in the back as they fled.

The shooting began shortly after a bus from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry entered the school to collect the decomposing corpses of up to 20 people who had been murdered by the terrorists in the past two days. The terrorists had agreed to allow the bus access for humanitarian reasons. The authorities insist they had not been planning to storm the school and they were caught off guard; the plan had been to persevere with negotiations.

The reality

A surveillance tape allegedly recorded by Russian special forces shows the terrorists arguing among themselves about whether to stay or flee minutes before the first explosion. The tape suggests the first bomb may have been detonated as part of an internal feud among the hostage-takers with some wanting to go and others determined to fight to the death.

Some of the terrorists apparently thought it was wrong to take children hostage; they were killed by their own comrades, according to some accounts. Umar Sikoyev, a lawyer for a captured militant identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev on Russian TV, claimed the band's leader did not tell them what their mission was and that he detonated the suicide belts worn by two women raiders by remote control in order to establish order among the hostage-takers.

However, whatever the truth it would seem that the Russians were preparing to storm the school anyway. Though North Ossetia's president Alexander Dzasokhov said that he would not allow an assault to go ahead, he appears to have ordered intense preparations for just such a scenario. Military sources quoted in the Russian weekly Novaya Gazeta claim that negotiations were not taking place and that the authorities had no intention of fulfilling any demands. Though high-profile Russian MPs were on the scene, none of them tried to get into the school. Ruslan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia, who did manage to get into the school and get 26 people out, was overheard saying that "the government has sold them all down the river."

Mr Aushev claimed in Novaya Gazeta that the terrorists were ready to negotiate on Friday, but that an explosion took place prompting the hostages to flee and locals to open fire. According to one woman, one of the terrorists detonated a bomb in the gym by accident. Mr Aushev blames the locals for what happened next. "We asked them (the hostage-takers) to stop the firing. We called them by mobile phone. They said, 'We have stopped shooting, you are shooting'. We gave the command to stop the shooting. But a stupid 'third force' intervened. I do not know how they appeared there, we are investigating this.

"(The fact is that) some 'militia' with assault rifles decided to free the hostages themselves and they opened fire at that school." Aushev alleges that the terrorists believed this to be an assault by Russian troops and detonated their explosives, bringing down the gym's roof on to some 500 people below. After that, the troops really did start the assault.

The truth about what really happened on 3 September is, however, unlikely ever to emerge. Mr Putin has rejected calls for a public inquiry and there are too many conflicting accounts of what occurred.

Who planned the siege?

The official version

The Russians claimed that the siege was planned by an Ingush warlord with close links to infamous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Russia's most wanted man. The raid was apparently funded by wealthy Arabs in the Middle East with close links to Al-Qa'ida.

The reality

Investigators say the terrorists were taking orders over the phone from Shamil Basayev and that the four men previously mentioned led the hostage-takers. A fighter captured by the Russians and paraded on national TV appeared to back up this scenario. He said that the terrorists were being controlled by Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel president of Chechnya.

"We gathered in the forest and the Colonel - it's his nickname - said we must seize the school in Beslan," said the man, who had short, dark hair and no beard. "When we asked the Colonel why we must do it, he said, 'Because we need to start war in the entire territory of the North Caucasus'.

Whoever planned the seizure did so thoroughly, casing the school months in advance. Terrorists masquerading as workmen smuggled large quantities of guns, explosives, and ammunition into the building during summer maintenance work. Some of the weapons were concealed beneath the floorboards in the school library.

Other schools in Beslan were also considered and the terrorists used at least two police officers to help them get past checkpoints. It is not clear whether the police officers cooperated willingly or acted under duress.

Were the Russians incompetent?

The official version

President Vladimir Putin heaped praise on the special forces who allegedly handled the siege, extolling their bravery and their sacrifices. He later admitted, however, that things could have been handled better and that security would have to be stepped up across the country.

He claimed that Russia had grown weak and that "the weak are beaten up." He also suggested that the country's economic transition to a market economy had meant that the security organs had been run down and starved of vital funds.

The reality

A senior Russian official has since admitted that many of the some 20 Russian commandos who were killed were mowed down by friendly fire.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the Kremlin's expert on the region, has said that many of them were shot in the back by trigger-happy locals who often had family members trapped inside. Desperate to free them the hostage-takers and armed with their own Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols and shot guns, the locals fired upon the school indiscriminately.

Russia's elite Alfa and Vimpel units have never sustained such heavy casualties before. Alpha group lost three fighters and Vimpel group lost seven fighters in Beslan.

What did the terrorists want?

The official version

Although the authorities initially said they had received a range of demands from the terrorists on a videotape tossed out of one of the school's windows, they later recanted and said that the tape was blank.

By arguing that the terrorists' demands were vague and loosely formulated, they gave the impression the hostage-takers themselves did not know what they wanted and that it would take time to find out what their demands were. That contrasted sharply with early announcements which said that the hostage-takers wanted the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of dozens of fighters who had been arrested in a rebel raid on Ingushetia in June. The fighters were imprisoned in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia.

The reality

President Vladimir Putin said after the siege was broken that the terrorists wanted to "blow up" the North Caucasus region and stir up ethnic and religious strife there. He suggested the rebels were trying to spread Chechnya's thirst for independence throughout the entire region so that other Caucasian republics would begin to press for autonomy.

The initial demands about a withdrawal of troops from Chechnya and a prisoner release appear to have been true. The rebels apparently demanded that Mr Putin sign a presidential decree pulling out Russian troops,who have been there since 1999.

Comments