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Beslan school hostage crisis
The Beslan school hostage crisis (also referred to by the media as the Beslan school siege) began when armed multinational terrorists took hundreds of schoolchildren and adults hostage on September 1 2004 at School Number One in the Russian town of Beslan in North Ossetia. The crisis ended after shooting broke out on September 3, 2004 that resulted in the deaths of hundreds.
The hostage-takers reportedly included Chechens, Ingush, and other nationalities. On the third day of the standoff, there was a shootout between the hostage-takers and Russian security forces. According to official data, 344 civilians were killed, at least 172 of them children, and hundreds more wounded.
Course of the crisis
At 09:30 local time (GMT+3) on September 1, 2004 — the morning of the first day of the autumn term — a group of around thirty armed men and women, arriving in a GAZel and a GAZ-66 military lorry, stormed Beslan's Middle School Number One , whose pupils are aged from seven to eighteen years old. Most of the attackers wore black ski masks and a few were seen carrying explosive belts. After an exchange of gunfire with police, in which five officers and one perpetrator were killed, the attackers seized the school building taking more than 1,300 people hostage. This number was confirmed by teachers later. Most hostages were under the age of eighteen. About fifty hostages managed to flee to safety in the initial attack.
At first there was a confusion about how many hostages were left inside. While the government claimed that there were just over 350 hostages remaining, other sources stated that there were as many as 1,000. Repeated shooting was later heard coming from the school buildings, thought by some to be for the intimidation of Russian security forces. It was later revealed that the attackers had killed twenty adult male hostages and thrown their bodies out of the building that day. The attackers were also outraged by the authorities diminishing the number of hostages.
A security cordon was soon established around the school, consisting of Russian police and army forces, Spetsnaz, including the Alpha anti-terrorist team, and members of Ministerstvo Vnutrennih Del (MVD, or Ministry of Interior Affairs)'s OMON unit. The attackers moved the hostages to the school gymnasium on the first day, mined the gym and the rest of the building with improvised explosive devices, and surrounded it with tripwires. In a further bid to deter rescue attempts, they threatened to kill fifty hostages for every one of their own members killed by the police, and to kill twenty hostages for every gunman injured. They also threatened to blow up the school should government forces attack. The Russian government initially said that it would not use force to rescue the hostages, and negotiations towards a peaceful resolution did take place on the first and second days, led by Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician whom the hostage-takers had asked for by name. Roshal had helped negotiate the release of children in the 2002 Moscow Theatre Siege.
At Russia's request, a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council was convened on the evening of September 1, at which the council members demanded "the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages of the terrorist attack". U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly offered "support in any form" to Russia in dealing with the crisis.
On September 2, 2004 negotiations between Roshal and the hostage-takers proved unsuccessful, and they refused even to allow food, water and medicines to be taken in for the hostages or for the bodies of the dead to be removed from the school.
Conditions within the school grew steadily worse. The hostage takers refused to allow any food or water into the gymnasium. Many hostages, especially children, took off their shirts and other articles of clothing because of the sweltering heat within.
In the afternoon, 26 women and infants were freed by the gunmen following new negotiations with former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev. The L.A. Times wrote that some of the mothers with two children were forced to choose one to take with them, and leave the others behind. However, at around 15:30, two explosions occurred at the school about ten minutes apart from each other. These were later revealed to be the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades, which had been fired by the hostage-takers in an apparent attempt to keep the security forces well away from the school.
On the afternoon of September 3, 2004 the hostage-takers agreed to allow medical workers to remove bodies from the school grounds. The removal team began to approach the school, but in a few seconds, at around 13:04, the hostage-takers opened fire, and two large explosions were heard. Two medical workers were killed; the rest fled under a hail of gunfire. Part of the gymnasium collapsed, allowing a group of about thirty hostages to escape, but they were fired on by the gunmen; some of the escapees were killed.
- Presidential advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov later said that the cause of firing and the subsequent storming of the school had been a spontaneous explosion — according to an escaped hostage, one of the bombs had been insecurely attached by an adhesive tape and had fallen and exploded.
- In a conflicting account, an anonymous employee of the Ministry of Emergency Situations said that the shooting began after the medical workers' truck arrived at the pick-up point. He did not know whether the armed fathers of hostages or the hostage-takers fired first (see the article in Izvestia below). Other witnesses reported hearing increasing automatic weapons fire before the blasts.
These two accounts may be reconcilable. Ruslan Aushev, a key negotiator during the siege, told the Novaya Gazeta that an initial explosion was set off by an hostage-taker accidentally tripping over a wire; as a result, armed civilians, some of them apparently fathers of the hostages, started shooting. Reportedly, no security forces or hostage-takers were shooting at this point, but the gunfire led the hostage-takers to believe that the school was being stormed; in response, they set off their bombs. 
The third version has it that a couple of female bombers blew themselves up as soon as they heard gunfire. This contradicts to the following sources.
- The surviving hostages' stories such as the one by the Alania soccer team's cameraman Karen Mdinaradze published by Newsru September 17 . The man lost his eye and saw others hurt by the blast which killed the bombers long before the storm.
- The captured suspect hostage taker Kulayev's story (see Investigations below).
- The September 17 statement attributed to Shamil Basayev where only 2 female perpetrators were mentioned .
Apparently, it was at this point that Russian special forces activated their action plan to storm the school to rescue any possible survivors. A chaotic battle broke out as the special forces sought to enter the school and cover the escape of the hostages. A massive level of force was used; as well as the special forces, the regular army and Interior Ministry troops were also engaged, as were helicopter gunships (including Mi-24 Hinds and Mi-8 Hips) and at least one tank. Many local civilians also joined in the battle, having brought along their own weapons.
The hostage-takers set off more large explosions, totally destroying the gym and setting much of the building on fire, while the special forces commandos blew holes in walls to allow hostages to escape. By 15:00, two hours after the assault began, Russian troops claimed control of most of the school. However, fighting was still continuing in the grounds as evening fell, and three gunmen were located in the basement along with a number of hostages. They were eventually killed, along with the hostages they were holding.
During the battle a group of hostage-takers, said by the government to number thirteen, broke through the military cordon and took refuge nearby. Two of those thirteen were reportedly women who allegedly attempted to blend into the crowd and escape disguised as health personnel. The military cordon had been compromised by permitting the passage of hostages' relatives, dressed in civilian clothing and, in some cases, bearing firearms.
A few of the escapees were said to be cornered in a residential 2 story house within 40 metres from the gym. Whether or not they had hostages is unknown. The house was destroyed using tanks and flame throwers by 23:00 September 3, 2004.
Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Fridinsky said that 31 of 32 attackers had been confirmed dead and one had been seized.
One suspected hostage-taker was beaten to death by the fathers of hostages when he was injured and driven to the hospital (see the article in Izvestia below).
According to official data 331 civilians and 11 soldiers died. At least one surviving female hostage committed suicide after returning home. Many other survivors remained in severe shock. Some injured died in hospitals.
The Russian government has been heavily criticized by many of the local people who, days after the end of the siege, did not know whether their children were living or dead.
During the operation 11 fighters of the special divisions "Alpha" and "Vimpel " were killed, among them the commander of "Alpha". One of the members of these divisions said that the reason for such large losses had been that fighters had first of all rescued children and the hostage-takers had then shot at their backs. Wounds of varying severity were received by more than 30 fighters in the Russian special forces divisions.
Days 6 and 7
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a two day national mourning for September 6, 2004 and September 7, 2004. The second of these days saw 135,000 people join an anti-terror demonstration on the Red Square in Moscow. Putin then canceled the planned meeting with German chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Hamburg and in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Identities of the hostage-takers
Initially, the identity of the attackers was not immediately clear. It was widely assumed that they were separatists from nearby Chechnya, but Aslambek Aslakhanov has denied it: "They were not Chechens. When I started talking with them in Chechen, they had answered: we do not understand, speak Russian". The Russian government has stated that the attackers were an international group consisting of Arabs, Tatars, Kazakhs, Chechens, Uzbeks, and even one local resident. It has been suggested that they were associated with Shamil Basayev and had earlier participated in a major terrorist attack in the Republic of Ingushetia in June 2004. The authorities have linked the hostage-takers to Islamist terrorists supporting Chechen independence.
However, some surviving hostages and other evidence from the scene of the attack has cast some doubt on the Russian governments' account. Some of the hostages reported that they did not see any Arabs among the attackers and say that the attackers spoke Russian with a Chechen accent.
The Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov has denied that his forces were involved in the siege. He condemned the action and all attacks against civilians via a statement issued by his envoy Akhmed Zakayev, currently resident in London. The crisis was strikingly similar to the 1995 Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis and the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis in which hundreds were held hostage by Chechen fighters.
On September 17, 2004, the man who claimed responsibility for both of those attacks, Shamil Basayev, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the Beslan massacre. Newspaper reports have also linked his Ingush deputy, Magomet Yevloyev, to the school attack.
Basayev also claimed responsibility for the attacks against civilians during the previous week, in which a metro station in Moscow was bombed, killing ten people, and two airliners were apparently blown up by suicide bombers, killing 89 people.
The Russian government has suggested that the hostage-takers may have been linked with al-Qaeda. Independent commentators have been skeptical about this claim, pointing out that it is politically beneficial to the government to put the attack in the context of a global "war on terror" rather than as something linked specifically to its policies in Chechnya.
An as yet unresolved question is why the hostage-takers targeted North Ossetia and Beslan in particular. A number of theories have been advanced:
- Practicality: It may have simply been that the attackers were only able to get as far as Beslan and were unable to get into Russia proper.
- Opportunism: The school in Beslan undertook major building work during the summer break. It has been reported that a Chechen company was involved, which may have given the attackers the chance to stockpile weapons (if this did happen) in the school well in advance of the siege.
- Politics: The Ossetians are a mainly Christian people who have a history of conflict with their Muslim neighbours. The attackers may have hoped to inflame inter-communal tension and goad the Ossetians into taking revenge on innocent Ingush and Chechens, thereby kick-starting a cycle of revenge and blood feuds. This would potentially plunge the North Caucasus into an all-out inter-ethnic war.
The hostage-takers in Beslan are reported to have at first made the following demands:
- Withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.
- Presence of the following people in the school:
- Aleksander Dzasokhov , president of North Ossetia,
- Murat Ziazikov, president of Ingushetia,
- Alu Alkhanov, president of Chechnya (other reports name presidential advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov, or Mukharbek Aushev , Duma member representing Ingushetia),
- Leonid Roshal, director of the emergency surgery department of the Pediatrics Institute.
ITAR-TASS reported a territorial law enforcement source told them that militants disguised as repairmen had concealed weapons and explosives in the school in July 2004 after visiting three schools in Beslan, but this version was later refuted.
The suspected hostage-taker Nur-Pashi Kulayev, 24, born in Chechnya, was captured and was identified by former hostages. The government-controlled Perviy Kanal showed fragments of his interrogation. Kulayev said the group was led by a Chechnya-born militant nicknamed "Polkovnik" (Colonel) and by Khodov, 28 who was a suspect in the May 15, 2004 Moscow-Vladikavkaz train bombing.
According to Kulayev, Polkovnik shot a militant and detonated two female suicide bombers because they objected to capturing children in the midst of the siege.
Kulayev recognized the body of a short man with a barrel-like torso, a fiery red beard and a freckled face as Polkovnik. The official investigators identified Polkovnik as Ruslan Tagirovich Khochubarov born in the village of Galashki of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic in 1972 .
The official version of the Polkovnik's identity was refuted in the message attributed to Basayev. According to the message, Polkovnik was a colonel of the Ichkeria forces Orstkhoyev. The message suggested that the Kulayev's testimony could be forced by his interrogators.
The authorities linked the third body to Magomet Yevloyev nicknamed Magas. Magas was an Ingush from the Chechen capital Grozny who, together with the notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, prepared an attack on Ingushetia on June 22, 2004, in which 98 people were killed.
Kulayev recognized the body of a bald-headed man dressed in a vest and black uniform trousers as belonging to a militant nicknamed Fantomas.
Nur-Pashi Kulayev is represented by Umar Sikoyev.
At the press conference with foreign journalists Vladimir Putin rejected the prospect of an open public inquiry (The Guardian, September 7, 2004) but cautiously agreed with an idea of investigation (ie, a parliamentary commission) by the Duma. He warned though that the latter might turn into a "political show".
On November 27, 2004 the Interfax news agency reported Alexander Torhsin, head of the parliamentary commission, as saying that there was evidence of involvement by a foreign intelligence agency. He declined to say which, but said "when we gather enough convincing evidence, we won't hide it".
Russian authorities claimed that the hostage-takers had "listened to German hard rock group Rammstein on personal stereos during the siege to keep themselves edgy and fired up." The claim has not been independently confirmed and the Russian authorities are known to have been concerned that Rammstein was too appealing to "undesirable" elements in Russian society.
Experts agree that failure to save lives may have serious repercussions for Vladimir Putin's administration. Despite earlier promises to peacefully resolve the crisis, Russian special forces resorted to armed force, failed to keep the battleground secure from entry by civilians or exit by the militants, and are struggling to provide consistent reports of the situation to the media. The Russian government points out that the hostage-takers seemingly opened fire first, compelling the security forces to act in order to save the lives of the hostages.
Putin has since acknowledged that widespread graft and corruption hampered efforts to reform the intelligence agencies and prevent terrorist attacks such as the siege at Beslan.
Two reporters known as openly critical to the government could not get to Beslan. Andrey Babitsky , a journalist with the Russian service of Radio Free Europe — Radio Liberty, was indicted of mischief after an alleged conflict with security guards in the Moscow Vnukovo airport (see external links) and sentenced to a five-day arrest. The Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya fell into a coma (see external links) in the airplane bound to Rostov-On-Don and had her health seriously damaged. There are concerns that both incidents were provoked by the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (Federal Security Service). According to a poll by Levada-Center conducted a week after Beslan crisis, 83% of polled Russians believe that the government has been hiding at least a part of the truth about Beslan events from them.
Regional medical workers were stripped of their mobile phones (see external links) and forbidden to leave local hospitals at the end of their shifts, in what is suspected to be a move to suppress leaks of casualty figures and related information.
It has been reported that the interior minister of North Ossetia has resigned.
Raf Shakirov, chief editor of the Izvestia newspaper, was forced to resign after criticism by the major shareholders of both style and content of the Saturday, September 4, 2004 issue . In contrast to the less emotional coverage by other Russian newspapers, Izvestia had featured large pictures of dead or injured hostages; it also expressed doubts about the government's version of events.
Increased security measures have been introduced in Russian cities. More than 10,000 people without proper documents have been detained by Moscow police. At least one incident of police violence has been recorded. Magomet Tolboev , an aide to Duma deputy from Dagestan, was beaten on a street in Moscow by two policemen because of his Chechen-sounding name.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has proposed major reforms to political and security system. According to his plan, governors of Russia's oblasts, which are directly elected under the current system, will be appointed by the president. The election system for Russian Duma will be also changed. The death penalty will be re-introduced and a system of security alerts will be designed. Resident registration laws will be tightened and it will become harder to buy, sell and borrow cars. The reform plans drew criticism from the United States and European countries, as well as from Russia's liberals. Some critics have alleged that Putin is trying to increase his personal power, using the Beslan crisis as an excuse.
Russian public appears to be generally supportive of increased security measures. Levada-Center poll found 58% of Russians supporting stricter anti-terrorism laws and death penalty for terrorism. 33% would support banning all Chechens from entering Russian cities.
Countries and charities around the world donated to funds set up to assist the families and children that were involved in the hostage-taking. As of the end of 2004 the International Foundation For Terror Act Victims had raised over $1.1 million with a goal of $10 million.
The Beslan town council, itself having organised a charity fund, announced that it would donate $36,000 to aid the victims of the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. The council stated that "The whole world reacted to our tragedy, so we cannot remain indifferent either".
- Hostage death toll - from Moscow Times
- School siege timeline (BBC News)
- Attackers storm Russian school – 1 September 2004
- Force ruled out in Russian siege – 1 September 2004
- Group released from siege school – 2 September 2004
- Bloody end to Russia school siege – 3 September 2004
- Siege school yields more bodies – 4 September 2004
- Graphical timeline and basic overview – 4 September 2004
- Teacher Aslan Kudzoyev's account on September 1 killings of 15 hostages by Caucasus Times.
- translation of izvestia.ru article
- on doubts about who started the shooting, on motives of the hostage-takers (some lost their children in Chechen war), dispelling the myths about an African recruit and quoting a hostage denying any alleged rapes by the rebels.
- translation of svoboda.org article on Moscow Vnukovo airport conflict
- translation of novayagazeta.ru article on Anna Politkovskaya falling into a coma
- translation of gazeta.ru article on medical workers having phones removed
- translation of strana.ru article. Hostages speak
- translation of lenta.ru on the investigation
- Russian press review – The Guardian, September 6, 2004
- English overview of Russian press reaction.
- Global press review examining how Putin should respond – The Guardian, September 6, 2004
- Angry Putin rejects public Beslan inquiry, The Guardian, September 7, 2004.
- Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Official Statement (separatist government)
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