Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Confusion Surrounds Beslan Band

Unanswered questions about the identity of the group who seized the school in Beslan.

Tagir Khachaburov lives alone in a poor whitewashed two-room house with an overgrown front yard and ramshackle wooden gates in the Ingush village of Galashki.

His quiet existence was shattered earlier this month by the accusation that his 32-year-old son had been identified as probably the most hated man in Russia. Ruslan Khachaburov, nicknamed Polkovnik (or “Colonel” in English) had been named as the leader of the extremist group that seized the school in Beslan on September 1.

Tagir’s bloodshot, tear-filled eyes testify to what he has gone through in the last three weeks. He explained to IWPR that he had not seen his son for five years. He said Ruslan had not lived with him since his marriage broke up when Ruslan was two and the child went to live with his mother, an ethnic Chechen, first in the Stavropol region of southern region, then in the Chechen village of Orekhovo.

“When he grew up Ruslan lived in the town of Oryol in Russia,” Tagir said. “He ran away from there after he killed two Armenians in self-defence. After that he was on the run. He last came to see me in 1999 for a few hours. I haven’t seen him since then. When I heard what happened in Beslan I could not believe that Ruslan could have been there.”

“He wasn’t a terrorist,” Tagir went on. “I still can’t believe he was there. My son isn’t a terrorist. Our politics now is like 1937. They can pin anything they like on a person to blacken his name.”

Khachaburov said that the Russian security services had taken all the photographs of his two sons – his other son Bashir was a rebel fighter and died several years ago – for their investigation into Beslan. He said he had been constantly raided by the security services ever since the June attack on the town of Nazran Ingushetia by Chechen rebels, which resulted in more than 90 deaths and in which his son’s name first came up.

Khachaburov’s neighbours suffered much more grievously. One of them, named Beslan Arapkhanov, the father of seven children, lived on the same street. According to research by the human rights organisation Memorial, on the morning of July 21 a group of masked men burst into his house and shot him dead. Then one of the gunmen pulled a photograph from his jacket and was heard to say that “it’s not him”, and the group left.

It seems that the group had intended to kill Ruslan Khachaburov and had picked the wrong target.

Despite this tragedy, Musa Arapkhanov, a cousin of the dead man, told IWPR that he had doubts that Ruslan Khachaburov had been guilty of the charges against him and that he was an Islamic extremist or Wahhabi.

“When he was here last year, he faithfully went to the mosque and did the zikr [traditional Chechen prayer ritual], which the Wahhabis don’t do,” said Arapkhanov.

The North Ossetian authorities have issued a list of 13 names of the group of around 30 hostage-takers who seized Beslan’s School No. 1 on September 1. But even the identity of some of those named is not entirely certain and some relatives are questioning the official version of events.

Notorious Chechen warrior Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the attack last week on the Islamist website Kavkaz Center, which has since had its activity suspended.

Calling the attack “Nord-West” in a reference to the Nord-Ost musical which was playing at a packed Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, when it was seized by militants in October 2002, Basayev wrote, “Thirty-three mujahadin took part in Nord-West. Two of them were women. We prepared four [women] but I sent two of them to Moscow on August 24. They then boarded the two airplanes that blew up. In the group there were 12 Chechen men, two Chechen women, nine Ingush, three Russians, two Arabs, two Ossetians, one Tartar, one Kabardinian and one Guran. The Gurans are a people who live near Lake Baikal who are practically Russified.”

Even before Basayev’s letter, the Russian security services had identified several of the hostage-takers as being associated with him.

The name of “Polkovnik” came up from the televised account of the only surviving hostage-taker Nur-Pasha Kulayev, alleged to have worked for Basayev. Kulayev said, “We were collected in a wood by a man who went by the name of Polkovnik and he said we had to seize a school in Beslan. They told us the order came from Maskhadov and Basayev. When we asked Polkovnik why we had to do that he replied: because we had to unleash war across the whole of the Caucasus.”

Nur-Pasha Kulayev’s elder brother Khan-Pasha, who apparently died in the school, was also said to have been a bodyguard of Basayev.

The parents of the two brothers live in the village of Novy Engeloi in southeastern Chechnya. They told IWPR that the first they knew about their sons’ apparent involvement in the Beslan tragedy was when they saw their younger son on television news saying that he had taken part in the school seizure and heard that their eldest had been killed in the siege.

The parents said that Khan-Pasha had been wounded in shooting in the village in 2001 and went to hospital. There he was suspected of being a fighter and they did not see him for another three months. When he came back he had his arm amputated because of gangrene and he was psychologically disturbed.

The official version of how Kulayev was detained is somewhat different. In August 2001, the Interfax news agency reported that he had been seized in the village of Kurchaloi as one of three men in a group loyal to the Saudi-born fighter Khattab.

The last time the parents saw their two sons was at the end of August when both men were living in the Ingush village of Malgobek and their wives had gone to visit relatives in Chechnya.

However, in a statement that, if true, casts doubt on the official version of events, neighbours in Malgobek firmly told IWPR that the younger of the two, Nur-Pasha, had been at home in Malgobek on September 1, when the school siege started. The neighbours did not want to be quoted by name.

To confuse things further Basayev said in his statement that he had recruited both brothers to “stand on guard”.

“Everything that the man who swore by Allah that he wanted to live [in other words Nur-Pasha Kulayev on Russian television] is not important,” Basayev said. “I brought the Kulayev brothers and two of their fellow-villagers into the group at the last minute to make up numbers at half past four on August 31 and sent them into the operation at eight o’clock. I personally knew only Khan-Pasha Kulayev, whose right arm was missing.”

Similar confusion surrounds the involvement of Iznaur Kodzoyev, an Ingush believed to have been in the group. His fellow-villagers in the Ingush settlement of Kantyshevo said he was an extreme political and religious radical. The Ingush interior ministry has linked him to the June attack on Ingushetia. However, Iznaur’s cousin Aslan Kodzoyev said he saw him in Kantyshevo on September 2, the second day of the school siege.

Finally the identity has still not been fully confirmed of the Ingush man known as “Magas”. At first, he was believed to be a man named Magomed Yevloyev, but now the official Russian version is that he was in fact a former 30-year-old Ingush policeman named Ali Taziev.

According to the Ingush prosecutor’s office in 1998, Taziev was guarding Olga Uspenskaya, the wife of Valery Fateyev, an adviser to the Ingush president. Uspenskaya, Taziev and one other bodyguard were snatched by gunmen and held hostage. Uspenskaya herself was freed in 2000, but not the two guards. The body of one of them was later found and buried and Taziev was generally believed also to have died a heroic death.

Now the authorities say they believe Taziev is in fact the very same “Magas”, who allegedly led the raid on Nazran in June and then took part in the school seizure in Beslan.

In the village of Nasyr-Kort near Nazran, Taziev’s mother Lida has been sick for two weeks. “Three years ago we were already afraid he was dead,” she told IWPR weeping. “We held a wake for him. He can’t be this Magas. If he was alive he would have come home.”

The work of establishing the true identities of all the hostage-takers in Beslan has evidently only just begun.

Timur Aliev is IWPR’s Chechnya coordinator. Aslanbek Dadayev works for Radio Liberty in Chechnya. Ruslan Zhadayev is deputy editor of the Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper.

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