Beslan Massacre Probe Defends Russian Forces

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 23, 2006

MOSCOW, Dec. 22 -- A parliamentary commission investigating the 2004 Beslan school massacre in southern Russia, which left 331 people dead including 186 children, on Friday brushed aside lingering questions that fire from government forces might have triggered the siege's bloody climax. The panel's final report largely defended the forces' tactics in the ensuing battle with terrorists.

"It has been established that one of the gang members, acting according to the previously developed plan, actuated a homemade explosive device in the gym," setting off the battle, said Aleksandr Torshin, chairman of the commission, which the government reluctantly formed in the face of widespread criticism of its handling of the siege. "Federal authorities . . . acted adequately according to the situation that emerged."

Terrorists seized the school Sept. 1, 2004, taking about 1,000 people hostage. Two days later, two explosions rocked the school gymnasium, where most of the hostages were held, and Russian forces stormed the building.

The cause of those explosions came into dispute almost immediately. The government said bombs were detonated by the terrorists, either deliberately or accidentally, but others, including a dissenting commission member, suggested that fire from security forces led to the first explosion.

Torshin read the final report to the upper house of parliament, and copies were provided to the Kremlin and senior politicians. But the written report was not immediately released. It was not possible to examine the evidence the panel assembled to back some of its conclusions.

Some families of the dead as well as some survivors immediately contested the findings. "The report is another attempt to protect certain officials from being punished for their negligence and irresponsibility," Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers Committee, told journalists.

Dudiyeva singled out the commission's assertion about the first explosion, as well as continuing disputes about the kinds of weapons employed by the Russians. Witnesses, for instance, asserted that Russian tanks fired on the school while hostages were still inside, an allegation dismissed by the commission.

The commission said the seizure was organized by Chechen separatist leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, both of whom were later killed; an Arab collaborator, known as Abu Dzeit; and a fourth man identified only as Khashiyev.

A man named Khuchbarov, who used the title "Colonel," was in charge of the terrorists at the scene, said Torshin, a member of Russia's upper house.

"The school siege was originally plotted as a suicide attack," Torshin said, adding that this is confirmed by numerous materials. They include video footage showing Abu Dzeit talking to Khuchbarov. Abu Dzeit says: "You will soon see Allah. Are you ready for it?" The answer is: "Yes, I am ready!"

The commission rejected allegations that a number of terrorists escaped in the chaos as Russian forces stormed the school, saying that of the 32 people who seized the school, 31 were killed and one was captured.

The terrorists had demanded that Russian forces be withdrawn from Chechnya -- something that Torshin said was impossible. Toward the end of his speech, Torshin criticized local police. He noted that a telegram sent Aug. 31 warned police to take urgent measures to protect schools from possible terrorist attacks Sept. 1, but police "failed to take measures to guarantee public security," Torshin said.

He also acknowledged that authorities lied to local people during the siege when they said there were about 350 hostages in the school when authorities knew the number was more than 1,000. That decision infuriated residents of Beslan and contributed to the atmosphere of distrust that persists.

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