Surviving Beslan hostage-taker jailed for life

The only Beslan hostage-taker captured alive after the bloody school siege in 2004 will spend the rest of his life in prison after a trial that left crucial questions unanswered and victims feeling cheated.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, one of at least 32 pro-Chechen gunmen who seized the school on 1 September 2004, was found guilty of terrorism, murder and banditry, by a court in Vladikavkaz, in southern Russia.

Technically the judge, Tamerlan Aguzarov, sentenced Kulayev to death, a punishment that many believe fits a crime in which 331 hostages died, 186 of them children. But Russia has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 1996, so Kulayev will escape a bullet to the back of the head, Moscow's preferred method of execution.

When the year-long trial finished, black-clad mothers who lost their children tried to attack Kulayev, banging their fists on his plastic bullet-proof cage. They had to be restrained, many of them shrieking in anger and sorrow.

Some mothers, like Rita Sidakova whose only daughter was burnt alive in the school as it was rocked by explosions, believe Kulayev deserves to die. "He is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of people but he has remained alive and my daughter is dead," she said.

Other mothers want him kept alive, however, in the forlorn hope that he might one day shed light on what really happened, something he has refused to do.

Kulayev, 26, a Chechen carpenter who is married with two children, showed little emotion when the verdict was pronounced, merely claiming that the charges were "all invented tales". He had pleaded not guilty, arguing that he had not shot anyone, and that he thought the target was a sentry-post rather than a school.

The judge reached a different conclusion, saying Kulayev had detonated a bomb, that he had shot children and others as they tried to flee, and that he was partially responsible for the murder of 16 male hostages on the first day of the siege.

The Chechen was found cowering beneath a truck on 3 September, the day the siege was broken, and was prised from the clutches of a lynch mob. Whether he really is the only terrorist to survive the siege is debatable; most people in Beslan believe there were more than 32 hostage-takers but that many slipped away in the night before the siege was broken or in the chaos of the gun battle.

That theory gained fresh credence when one of the gunmen, a man nicknamed "Magas", surfaced on the internet to claim responsibility for the assassination of a government official in the region. Moscow had insisted he was dead.

Indeed a year and nine months after what is the worst terror atrocity in Russia's history, many questions remain unanswered and the official federal inquiry is not due to report until the end of this year. It is not known for sure, for example, what caused two explosions that triggered the final gun battle, or how the terrorists passed through so many checkpoints on their way to the school undetected.

Many bereaved mothers are also eager to ascertain whether their children were killed by the terrorists or by heavy-handed government troops trying to free them.

"I did not go to court to convince myself of Kulayev's guilt," said Aneta Gadiyeva, whose daughter died. "But to reconstruct all the circumstances of the terrorist attack and to find the truth. But I did not learn anything new."

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