Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Fear and Tension in Siege Town
North Ossetia is in shock as it tries to face up to the worst episode yet associated with the conflict in Chechnya.
As the siege of the school captured by armed gunmen went into its second day, many details were still disputed as a picture was slowly built up of the hostage-takers' identity, and conclusions drawn about what the crisis means for the fragile North Caucasus.
On the morning of September 2, the death toll was put at 12. Later in the day at least 20 people were released, reported to be mothers and children, after the mediation of former Ingush president Ruslan Aushev. One two-year-old child hungrily chewed on a piece of bread.
There was much uncertainty about the exact number of hostages inside the school in the town of Beslan. Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for the government of North Ossetia, put the figure at 354, although some relatives insist the number is much higher. They include at least 100 children.
The crisis began just after 9 am on September 1, when a group of armed men drew up in a lorry outside School No. 1 in Beslan and opened fire. The school was packed with parents and pupils attending the traditional September 1 celebrations of the first day of the autumn term and the ceremony of lining up the children had just begun.
Around 15 children and adults managed to hide in a boiler room and escaped. Half an hour after the school was seized it was surrounded by soldiers.
At first the streets were almost empty. It was a sunny warm day. Slowly people began to gather outside the school, and within several hours there were around 5,000 relatives of those inside - a huge number for a small town with a population of just 35,000. Hundreds of people sat on the ground next to the railway line which runs near the school.
Throughout the course of the day, shots and detonations could be heard from the school building. Around four in the afternoon a loud explosion was heard as a wounded man fell from a window on the ground floor of the building, trying to escape. Shots were fired at him, but special forces managed to rescue him and take him to hospital.
Some women argued with North Ossetian officials, who gave contradictory information about what was happening.
The children who had managed to escape said that the fighters included women, and were carrying what looked like explosives. There were said to be around 30 attackers in all and two dogs, evidently brought along to detect any use of gas by Russian special forces.
Many of the people waiting outside are convinced that the attackers are from neighbouring Ingushetia - a suspicion which only adds to the tension. Oleg Bayev, one of the witnesses to the seizure of the school, said that he clearly heard the gunmen talking "in Ossetian with Ingush accents".
Some reports said that the attackers had come from the village of Khurikau to the north, which has an Ingush population.
One report suggests that the hostage-takers are demanding the release of 30 men, both Chechen and Ingush, who were detained following the June 22 attack on the Ingush city of Nazran in which over 90 people were killed. The men are currently being held in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz.
The Ingush are closely related ethnically to the Chechens, but have mostly kept out of the Chechen conflict. If an Ingush link is confirmed, this is likely to inflame the tense relationship between ethnic Ingush and North Ossetians who fought a small conflict over the disputed Prigorodny district in 1992.
North Ossetia's interior minister Kazbek Dzantiev said the preliminary information that he had suggested the group was of mixed ethnicity. "There are Ossetians, Ingush, Chechens and Russians among them," he said.
A New York Times reporter succeeded in talking to one of the hostage-takers by telephone. The man said that he was from a group named "Riyadh as-Salihin" - which translates as "Gardens of the Righteous" - founded in October 2002 by the most notorious Chechen warrior, Shamil Basayev.
Basayev led the biggest ever hostage-taking operation by Chechens in the southern town of Budyonnovsk in 1995.
Other Russian newspaper reports have identified the leader of the group as Chechen commander Doku Umarov, who is commander of the so-called "Western front" of the rebels in Chechnya.
In a statement released on the rebel website Kavkaz Centre, Umar Khanbiev, a spokesman for separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, condemned the hostage-taking as "unacceptable", while simultaneously blaming President Vladimir Putin for this turn of events. Maskhadov takes a much more moderate line than the Islamists fighting on the rebel side.
"There is no justification for this inhuman act, and there is also no justification for the murder of 42,000 Chechen children of school age by the Russian military machine carried out on the orders of the Kremlin regime and personally by President Putin," the statement said, adding that the situation in the North Caucasus was getting "out of control".
Beslan is likely to have made a tempting target for the attackers in part because it was formerly used as a base for Russian aircraft which bombed Chechnya.
The atmosphere in the town is tense and fearful. Many civilians are carrying weapons and some are desperate to take action.
Alan Khachirov, whose wife and six-year-old daughter are inside the school, said that he is ready to take the place of his child. "I want to be there instead of my daughter," he said.
Tensions rose between relatives and local officials throughout the day, with people arguing with the police and demanding more action from the authorities.
A young woman said, "If you [the authorities] only wanted to, you could catch them all, but you want blood to be spilled. My nine-year-old and eleven-year-old children are in there. Give us our children, and then do whatever you like to them."
Some locals are angered at how such a raid could have been allowed to take place so far from the combat zone of Chechnya.
"There are three police posts on the road from Ingushetia to North Ossetia," complained Sergei Tedtoyev loudly. "How could they get through unnoticed?"
The operation was evidently carefully planned. On the evening of August 31, an attack took place that may possibly have been a diversionary manoeuvre. A column of Russian federal troops was fired on near the village of Barsuki in Ingushetia, on the main road leading to North Ossetia. Several soldiers and six civilians were wounded. This attack may have diverted troops away from the Beslan area.
Negotiations began with the gunmen but were then suspended. The North Ossetian president Alexander Dzasokhov was at the scene all day, but did not make contact with the hostage-takers. The well-known children's surgeon Leonid Roshal, who acted as an intermediary in the siege in a Moscow theatre by Chechen gunmen in October 2002, made telephone contact with them.
Ossetian interior minister Dzantiev said a proposal had been made to exchange the children inside for adults, but this had been rejected. An offer to provide the fighters with safe passage through Ingushetia to Chechnya was also turned down. Dzantiev said that the adult hostages were being kept separate from the children, who were in the school sports hall.
"The fighters are threatening to blow up the school building if it is stormed," Dzantiev said. "For every person killed on their side they will kill 50 hostages."
On September 2, President Putin said at a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan that the priority was to protect the lives of the hostages.
He added, "What is happening in North Ossetia is terrible because there are children among the hostages and because this act can destroy the already fragile balance of inter-confessional and inter-ethnic relations in the region."
Conversations around the school have centred obsessively on whether an attempt will be made to storm the building - as happened at the Moscow theatre two years ago. The hostages' relatives are strongly against any assault but as Larisa Byazrova said with tears in her eyes, "our president [Dzasokhov] decides nothing. If the order comes from Moscow, they will storm the building."
Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz. Valery Dzutsev is IWPR's North Caucasus editor. Timur Aliev in Nazran contributed to this report.
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