Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Beslan Siege Unravels, Slowly and Bloodily
The local hospital in Beslan looked like something out of a horror film as more and more wounded people were brought in, many of them very badly injured, and blood everywhere. Relatives were screaming, some passing out.
Lists of people delivered to the hospital were stuck up on a wall. There were some 400 to 500 names, and rising. As this report was published, Russian news agencies were putting the total number of wounded at over 600 – and fighting was still continuing.
Relatives and friends chased around searching for their loved ones. Not all the injured were here, as some were taken to hospital in North Ossetia’s main town, Vladikavkaz, only 30 kilometres away.
As evening fell, IWPR contributors saw three big refrigerator lorries parked just outside Beslan, apparently waiting to go in to pick up the dead.
Casualty figures varied widely, with some reports talking of at least 150 dead as Russian troops evacuated the living from the school and special forces went from room to room, where pockets of hostage-takers were said to be hiding out – still holding groups of schoolchildren.
“I’ve seen piles of bodies burning in the gym, many of them dismembered,” a member of a civilian rescue team told IWPR. “We wanted to do rescue work there, but it was impossible because we came under fire from two directions. And there was really no chance of saving anyone; the roof of the gym had collapsed and was on fire”.
The battle began shortly after 1pm local time on September 3. In the morning, the fighters had agreed with negotiators that they would allow bodies of the dead around the school to be collected.
Rescuers from Russia’s emergencies ministry went into the school and were carrying out two bodies when two powerful explosions went off and part of the roof collapsed.
Then bursts of small-arms fire were heard, and shortly afterwards some freed hostages started to appear. A middle-aged man was one of the first to emerge, covered dirt and wearing just a pair of trousers. “We suddenly heard two explosions and then someone shouted ‘run!’ – so we ran,” he told IWPR.
The official version is that the storming of the school was not planned, but that the military was forced to act when hostage-takers tried to break out of the building when the rescue team went in to collect the bodies.
People who got out of the school said there an explosion blew a hole in a wall, through which they escaped. It was not clear whether the blast was caused by explosives laid by the hostage-takers, or whether it could have been done by the security forces.
“I was hiding in a house near the school, and my impression is that the storm did not start spontaneously; but rather that it was planned by the security forces,” said Elbrus, one of the local men who joined armed groups which formed outside the school.
One by one, ambulances and private cars drove up and went off carrying the people who had just emerged - many of them coated in blood and grime. IWPR saw at least one dead body being taken away in a car, and eyewitnesses said they had seen at least six others.
The gunfire continued from 1pm to at least 6pm. Mostly it was automatic rifle fire, but at times the sound of heavier weapons could be heard. Police radio traffic suggested that some of the attackers had divided up into groups and were now trying to escape from the town.
As the action unfolded, the crowds of people – many of them relatives of hostages – who had been waiting for news outside the building grew increasingly agitated. As the first shots and explosions went off, many cursed the authorities who they believed had initiated a storm of the building.
When the sound of combat was heard inside the school buildings, many of the women outside - and some men, too - wept. “What have they done to us?” said an old man. The crowds milled about, sometimes getting closer to the school and then backing away when the shooting intensified.
Feelings ran high - IWPR saw at least two cases where crowds beat up individuals they thought looked suspicious. In both incidents police waded in and dispersed the mob, preventing a worse fate befalling the two people. One was taken off to a police station, while the other was recognised as a local deaf mute.
As IWPR went to press, it remained unclear how many people might have been held hostage in the school, with local people saying the true number was more than 1,000 - much higher than the official figure of 350. North Ossetia’s president Alexander Dzasokhov said on the morning of September 3 – when talks still appeared to be working – put the figure at 500 or more.
The school roll had close to 900 pupils plus 50 teachers. In addition because the first day of school – September 1, when the attackers burst in - is marked by celebrations in Russian schools, there were many parents there, some with the babies and toddlers seen being allowed to leave the building on September 2.
Nor was it clear who the attackers were, apart from their obvious links to the Chechen separatist war.
Speaking just an hour and a half before the violence erupted – at a point when Russian officials were still insisting they wanted a negotiated settlement - North Ossetian leader Dzasokhov said the demands made by the hostage-takers were unclear. “They said Chechnya should be separate from Russia, it is an independent state. But they didn’t go beyond this assertion. They didn’t say who they would like to talk to, or whatever. My impression is that they are cut off from the outside world,” he said.
In its efforts to secure the release of the hostages, Moscow began talking to people whom it formerly considered persona non grata.
Both Dzasokhov and former Ingush president Ruslan Aushev spoke by telephone to Akhmed Zakayev, the emissary of pro-independence leader Aslan Maskhadov. As Dzasokhov put it, “I even got permission to contact Maskhadov and talk to him, so yesterday [September 2] I phoned some people in London.”
Speaking to the separatist news agency Chechenpress, Zakayev said Maskhadov totally condemned the attack and said they had nothing to do with the hostage-takers.
The Kommersant newspaper in Moscow quoted freed hostages and policemen as saying the hostage-takers introduced themselves as Magas, Fantomas and Abdullah.
The first two are noms de guerre of men believed to be associates of the most notorious Chechen warrior Shamil Basayev. Magas is Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush who organised the bloody raid on Ingushetia on June 22 in which more than 90 people died. Fantomas is a former bodyguard of Basayev, who some believe is an ethnic Russian. The third man, Abdullah, is Vladimir Khodov, who the paper described as “a well-known criminal” from a Muslim family in North Ossetia.
The possibility that some ethnic Ingush were involved in the hostage-taking is likely to inflame the sensitive relations between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, which fought a brief but violent conflict over the disputed Prigorodny district (part of Ossetia) in 1992.
The involvement of Ingushetia’s ex-president Aushev in freeing 26 women and small children on September 2 will have calmed some of those passions.
According to the North Ossetian president, a senior official whose own children attend the school refused to ask Aushev to secure their release.
The word is that the official was Taimuraz Mamsurov, speaker of North Ossetian parliament. His son is believed to have escaped, but was wounded. It is not yet known what has happened to his daughter.
Valery Dzutsev is IWPR's North Caucasus editor. Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz.
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