NAZRAN, Russia, Sept. 6 -- The guerrillas who took over a school in southern Russia last week argued heatedly with each other over whether to abandon the siege in the moments leading up to the firestorm of explosions and shooting that killed hundreds of children and adults, Russian officials said Monday.
Russian special services had a surveillance tape of the militants fighting about whether to stay or flee just before a bomb they had planted in the school gym went off, prompting Russian commandos to storm the building, a senior Kremlin official said. Investigators were exploring whether the bomb detonated by accident or as a result of the internal dispute.
In Beslan, family and friends buried the victims of the school siege as rain poured down on mourners and gravediggers. Funeral processions arrived one after another, with as many as five people buried at the same time.
(Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)
Russia Begins Burying Victims: Funeral processions in Beslan on Monday moved one after another for the hundreds who died in the Russian school hostage crisis.
Photos: Standoff Ends
_____Hostage Standoff Ends_____
Photo Gallery: The hostage standoff at a school near Chechnya turned tragic with hundreds of children and adults killed or injured during fighting.
_____More From The Post_____
Putin Angered By Critics On Siege (The Washington Post, Sep 8, 2004)
Old Animosities Boil Anew In Wake of School Tragedy (The Washington Post, Sep 8, 2004)
Under a 'Crying' Sky, Beslan's Dead Are Laid to Rest (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2004)
A Gruesome Tour Inside School No. 1 (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2004)
As more details surfaced about the massacre at School No. 1 in the town of Beslan, a partial picture emerged of the guerrillas and the four men who led them into the school, where investigators say they took orders by phone from a Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev.
The leaders, they said, included a bodyguard of Basayev's and a former police officer who turned against authorities and led a bloody attack in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia last June.
All four leaders were killed in the battle at the school, authorities say.
The Kremlin official, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, said in an interview that more than 20 elite Russian commandos were killed in the day-long battle that began Friday, many of them accidentally shot in the back by civilian vigilantes who rushed to the school to fight for their children. The previously undisclosed death toll, he said, surpasses any in the history of the famed Alpha and Vympel special forces units.
In sorting through the origins of the hostage crisis, Russian officials said they had concluded that the strike against a target outside Chechnya, the scene of nearly 10 years of intermittent fighting, was part of a broader strategy to reignite the entire North Caucasus, a historically volatile region of mixed ethnic and religious groups. While the government has admitted to lying about the scope of the hostage crisis at first, its analysis about the goals and Chechen sponsorship coincides with that of independent specialists.
"The puppet leaders who organized these fierce incursions, they are attempting to destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus and make one people go against another," said Aslakhanov, President Vladimir Putin's top Chechnya adviser. "They are inciting old grudges and unsolved problems."
To bolster their version of events, Russian officials put a Chechen man they identified as a captured guerrilla on state television Monday night to make the first public statement by any of those involved in seizing the school. Visibly injured and having trouble talking, the prisoner described one of the ring leaders giving the orders for the attack.
"We gathered in the forest and the Colonel -- it's his nickname -- and they said we must seize the school in Beslan," said the man, who had short, dark hair and no beard. He said the orders came from Basayev and another Chechen commander, Aslan Maskhadov, and that his group included Arabs and Uzbeks as well as Chechens and people of other nationalities. "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.' "
Many of the guerrillas who seized the Beslan school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia took part in raids in Ingushetia in June that killed 90 people, investigators said Monday. "They're the same people that attacked Ingushetia," said Musa Apiyev, deputy interior minister in Ingushetia. "They're traveling, they're moving from place to place, exploiting the weak spots in our positions, and they're running from spot to spot committing their dark crimes."
Ingushetia and North Ossetia, located south and west of Chechnya, are dominated by different ethnic groups and fought a brief territorial war in 1992. Relations have remained tense since. In the days after the hostage crisis at the school, many Ossetians have blamed the Ingush and warned of retribution.
"It appears to be a deliberate provocation to reignite the conflict between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, to extend the range of the chaos," said Fiona Hill, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's very easy to stir up the region if you want to, and somebody wants to. This is a wake-up call. The whole of the Caucasus is going to go up at this rate."
Putin raised the specter of the region breaking apart from Moscow during a meeting with Hill and other visiting Westerners late Monday. "There's a Yugoslavia variant here," he said, according to notes taken by Eileen O'Connor, a participant. "It would be difficult to imagine the consequences for the rest of the world. Bear in mind Russia is a nuclear power."