Russians Mark Beslan Anniversary

The Associated Press
Friday, September 1, 2006; 6:54 AM

BESLAN, Russia -- Dozens of teenagers wearing black T-shirts that read "Anti-Terror" gathered Friday with weeping parents and students at the burned-out shell of Beslan's School No. 1 to remember the 333 people who died in Russia's worst terrorist attack.

With melancholy music playing over loudspeakers, hundreds filed past photographs and lighted candles to place red carnations on the floor of the school's gymnasium, where several dozen Islamic militants took more than 1,100 students, teachers and parents hostage on Sept. 1, 2004.

The three-day ordeal, which saw hostages deprived of food and water, ended in a bloodbath after two powerful explosions rocked the school and security forces launched a chaotic rescue effort. More than half the 333 victims were children; most were killed by the blasts and ensuing gunfire or were burned to death in the blaze sparked by the explosions.

Children around Russia, including students in other parts of the Caucasus region of North Ossetia where Beslan is located, attended ceremonies Friday marking the opening of the school year with festive ceremonies known as Day of Knowledge. Beslan's schools, however, were to open on Tuesday in deference to the victims.

At the cemetery on the outskirts of town, Batraz Misikov, a 14-year-old former hostage, walked among the new gravestones, patting those of his dead classmates.

He said he was held hostage along with his mother, father and younger brother and that he fainted after he was wounded in the left knee on the last day. Someone carried him from the burning gymnasium.

"All those who were there are different people now. We lack words and emotions, there is only emptiness inside us," he said.

Survivors and relatives of victims warned Russian officials not to attend the observances in Beslan. Many say the pain over their losses is only worsened by what they allege is a campaign by officials to hide the truth and deflect responsibility.

The official inquiry concluded that all but one of 32 attackers were killed, and the sole survivor _ Nur-Pashi Kulayev _ was sentenced to life in prison this past May. In July, Shamil Basayev, the Chechen mastermind of the Beslan raid and a series of other brutal terrorist attacks, died in a truck explosion.

But a study conducted by a dissident member of an official parliamentary commission and published this week punched holes in the official version of events, alleging that authorities were responsible for many of the deaths.

Yuri Savelyev, a lawmaker who is also an explosives specialist, claimed the two blasts that triggered the inferno were caused by grenades fired from outside the school _ most probably launched by security forces _ and not by bombs set by militants inside, as prosecutors contend.

Ella Kesayeva, who heads an activist group called Voice of Beslan, said Savelyev's findings coincide with their own. The group on Friday appealed Kulayev's conviction and sentence to Russia's Constitutional Court, saying the lower court that heard the case ignored crucial details about the seizure and its ending.

"We have arrived at the conclusion that it's the state to blame for the death of the hostages," she said.

Asked by reporters whether the full truth of what happened would ever be revealed, regional lawmaker Stanislav Kesayev said: "Not in our lifetime."

Rattled by the attack, the Kremlin has pushed sweeping legislative and executive reforms nationwide, abolishing direct elections of regional leaders and strengthening the hand of pro-Kremlin parties.

Many observers, however, say the changes have done little to fight poverty, corruption and violence in Russia's troubled south.


Associated Press Writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report from Moscow.

© 2006 The Associated Press