MOSCOW, Sept. 8 -- The main commander of the guerrillas who seized a school in southern Russia last week shot one of his own men for balking at taking children hostage and later blew up two women in his band with the flip of an electronic control, Russia's chief prosecutor said Wednesday.
Offering the government's first detailed account of the hostage crisis, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov depicted a harsh discipline within the group of attackers and confirmed that they were aided by a local police officer. The large bomb that blew up inside the school and triggered the deadly climax of the siege, he said, went off by accident when the hostage takers were trying to rearrange their explosives.
Residents of North Ossetia react as Dzasokhov speaks from the balcony of the administration headquarters in the region's capital, Vladikavkaz, where thousands took to the streets to protest the government's handling of the siege.
(Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)
_____Inside the Gym_____
Video Report: Video recorded by terrorists in the school in Beslan was released by the Russian government Tuesday. It shows how the gym was rigged with explosives.
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
_____More From The Post_____
Beslan Residents Mourn Their City Along With Their Dead (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
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)
Hostage Takers in Russia Argued Before Explosion (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 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)
Live, 2 p.m. ET
Sarah Mendelson, senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, will discuss the school massacre in Beslan and Putin's angered response to terrorism.
Ustinov disclosed these details in a briefing to President Vladimir Putin that was aired on national television. It came as officials backtracked on their claim that the hostage takers included 10 Arabs, but the Kremlin insisted that a "multinational group" of extremists was involved, and Russia's highest military officer threatened preemptive strikes against terrorist bases in other countries.
Russia's foreign minister strongly criticized the United States for suggesting this week that U.S. officials might still meet with Chechen separatist figures.
The full scale of the carnage in the southern town of Beslan remained unclear. The government put the official death toll so far at 328 children and adults. Ustinov's math suggested that the count could climb to nearly 500. He noted that more than 1,200 hostages were held and 727 received medical treatment. Virtually every survivor was taken to a hospital.
Relatives in Beslan continued to call at hospitals and morgues looking for missing loved ones. Officials in the regional center of Vladikavkaz reported that 233 of the bodies had been identified, leaving 95 undetermined. Others were likely incinerated or blown apart in the explosions that destroyed the school gym.
Officials said 32 guerrillas took part in the raid on School No. 1, all but one of whom were dead after the day-long battle that ended the impasse last Friday. Of 30 bodies found, 12 have been identified and one was torn to pieces. One attacker was taken alive, officials said.
The government, which has admitted that it initially lied about the number of hostages taken during the 52-hour standoff, rejected suspicions voiced in Beslan and Moscow that it was still covering up crucial information. Instead, it said it was simply sorting through a confusing set of facts.
"It's so terrible, we need lots and lots of time to put all of the pieces of the mosaic together," Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said in an interview.
Ustinov's briefing to Putin at the Kremlin provided the first detailed look at the prosecutors' theory of the event. Citing interviews with hostages and the lone captured guerrilla, Ustinov said the group gathered in a forest, boarded a GAZ-66 military truck and two other vehicles, then headed for Beslan. Along the way, they picked up a police officer, he said. Ustinov did not say whether the officer was a willing accomplice.
After overtaking the school, the guerrillas began unloading guns and explosives, but some appeared to have second thoughts, Ustinov said. "They asked, 'Why are we seizing a school?' " the prosecutor said.
The captured guerrilla, identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev, told interrogators that one of the group's leaders, known as "the Colonel," "killed one of his people to intimidate the others and said he would do it to everyone if they disobeyed," Ustinov said. The same day, he added, the Colonel used a remote control to trigger the explosives belts worn by the two women in the group to enforce obedience.
A Kremlin official has said surveillance indicated that the hostage takers were arguing in the moments before the final confrontation began. But Ustinov's account suggested that the dispute did not bring about the triggering of the big explosion on Friday. Instead, he said, when "they started to rearrange the bombing system . . . for their own considerations, an explosion occurred."
The explosion set off panic, and hostages began fleeing the building.