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Beslan Negotiations Shrouded in Mystery

What were the hostage-takers and the Russian authorities discussing before the siege erupted in violence?
By Sanobar Shermatova

A picture is now beginning to emerge of the contacts between the Russian authorities and the militants in the besieged school in Beslan, just before the battle that ended in the deaths of more than 300 hostages. Moscow, it appears, was preparing to negotiate.


The bloody and apparently unexpected way the siege ended makes it much harder to understand who the attackers were and what their real goals were.


As soon as they had taken over the school, the militants gave the names of a number people they would be prepared to talk to, among others Alexander Dzasokhov and Murat Zyazikov, presidents of North Ossetia and Ingushetia respectively, and the well-known paediatrician Dr Leonid Roshal.


None of the three went inside the school. According to local journalist Madina Shavlokhova, citing a member of the special centre coordinating the Russian response in Beslan, they were forbidden to do so. According to Shavlokhova’s source, the response team suspected that they were on a hit-list of people whom the hostage takers planned to kill.


There have been several attempts to assassinate Zyazikov in the past, and Chechen rebel websites have described Roshal as a employee of the Russian security service, the FSB, following his mediation efforts during the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002.


The only politician to enter the school after it was seized was former Ingush president Ruslan Aushev. Hostages told how the attackers brought him into the gym, and one of them started filming the hostages and the explosives packed in plastic bottles hanging over their heads. The cameraman then handed the videocassette to Aushev, with instructions to give it to President Vladimir Putin. This may well prove to be the video that was later shown on Russian television.


It has also transpired that the hostage-takers also gave Aushev a letter addressed to the Russian president. According to Aushev, speaking in an interview for the Moscow-based paper Novaya Gazeta, the letter contained demands “to withdraw troops and hand over control of the situation in Chechnya to CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries”.


From Aushev’s interview, it becomes clear what the Russian authorities and President Putin were intending to do in order to free the hostages.


A reliable source has reported that immediately after the school was seized, Dzasokhov spoke with Putin by telephone and passed on the first demand made by the hostage takers: the freeing of comrades arrested following the major raid on Ingushetia on June 22. The Russian president agreed to set these prisoners free if the hostages were liberated.


There followed a pause while Moscow considered who should be given the job of negotiating. According to Aushev, “I understood that they had three days. That was their task: the thing should be resolved in three days – either one way or the other. But we lost one and a half days deciding who should go to them.”


Russian presidential adviser Aslanbek Aslakhanov – who is a Chechen politician - was brought from hospital where he was recovering from flu. Aslakhanov recounts what Putin told him in the course of a brief conversation, “Everything must be done to release the children peacefully. Do anything to reach an agreement.”


The importance attached to Aslakhanov’s mission can be judged by the fact he was assigned a plane to fly him to North Ossetia.


Aushev and Aslakhanov made plans to go in together and show the militants a statement by Chechen rebel president Aslan Maskhadov circulated on the internet, condemning the seizure of children as hostages.


With Dzasokhov, Aushev telephoned Maskhadov’s envoy in London, Akhmed Zakayev – who has strongly condemned the hostage-taking – and won a pledge from him to get Maskhadov to mediate for the release of the children. The only condition was safe passage for either Maskhadov or Zakayev to Beslan.


We will never know whether this mediation could have helped free the children.


According to Aushev, everything was going as planned until some unknown civilians fired gunshots at the school, children started “flying” out of the school and Russian commandos had no option but to storm it.


Aushev is certain that there was no plan to use force, “They are all telling lies, those who claim the attack had been pre-prepared.”


He insisted, “To tell you the truth, the most important thing is that we wanted to rescue the children. And the rest would be accounted for afterwards.”


“The rest” was the militants’ demands, which were clearly impossible to fulfil. It would not be feasible to withdraw troops from Chechnya in one or two days, even supposing President Putin agreed to do so. Another demand that is said by some sources to have been conveyed to the Russian president was equally unrealistic: his resignation.


It is still far from clear what the attackers really wanted, and indeed who they were. One of them told the New York Times that they represented a group called Riyadh as-Salihin group (Gardens of the Righteous), whose creation was announced by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev in 2002.


The raid – a meticulously planned dash outside Chechen territory executed at lightning speed – bears all the hallmarks of a Basayev operation, in which local knowledge was more important than anything else.


The presence of “nine or ten Arabs” whom Russian officials initially said they had found in the school has not yet been confirmed. A reported “black man” now appears to have been a dead hostage-taker whose face was covered in soot.


The Russian authorities continue to insist that this was an operation planned from abroad by an international group. Aushev said that when he offered to speak to the extremists in Vainakh, the common Chechen-Ingush language, he was told to speak Russian.


As with the Moscow theatre siege, the tragic outcome at Beslan leaves many worrying questions that may never be answered.


Sanobar Shermatova is a journalist with Moscow News newspaper in Moscow.


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