Coffins of siege victims fill streets

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 7 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

Townspeople crowd around the coffins of those killed in the school siege in Beslan, Russia. One-hundred-twenty were buried Monday.

Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BESLAN, Russia — Funeral processions filled the rainy streets of this southern Russian city Monday, carrying coffins large and small, as townspeople buried scores of victims of a carefully planned school siege that prosecutors linked to a Chechen rebel leader.

Desperate families searched for those still missing from the siege at School No. 1, while others buried 120 victims during the first of two days of national mourning across Russia, which has seen more than 400 people killed in violence linked to terrorism in the past two weeks.

Reports emerged that the attackers apparently planned the school seizure months ago, sneaking weapons into the building in advance. There also were signs that some of the militants did not know they were to take children hostage and may have been killed by their comrades when they objected.

State television also sharply criticized government officials for understating the scope of the crisis, in which hundreds of hostages were held for 62 hours by heavily armed militants who reportedly demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

The school seizure came a day after a suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people and just over a week after two Russian passenger planes exploded and crashed, killing all 90 people aboard — two attacks authorities suspect were linked to Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya.

On Monday, wailing women stroked the coffins or kissed wooden stakes that bore the names of victims until tombstones could be put in place in Beslan's cemetery. Passing trains sounded their horns in respect. A fuzzy, pink rabbit adorned one of the caskets.

Police erected heavy security cordons on the road leading to the cemetery before a visit by a high-level government delegation including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the president of North Ossetia, the speaker of the Russian parliament and the prosecutor-general.

Among the first buried were Zinaida Kudziyeva, 42, and her 10-year-old daughter, Madina Tomayeva. Relatives said they tried to flee when the first explosions went off and were caught in firing between militants and Russian forces.

"They couldn't run away. They didn't have time," said Irakly Khosulev, a relative from nearby Vladikavkaz. "Someone should answer for this."

A prosecutor said the militants belonged to a group led by radical Chechen rebel Shamil Basayev. A man identified by authorities as a detained hostage-taker said on state TV that he was told that Basayev and separatist former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov were behind the attack.

Mikhail Lapotnikov, a senior investigator in the North Caucasus prosecutors' office, said on Channel One television that investigators have established the assailants were "the core of Basayev's band" and had taken part in a June attack — also blamed on Basayev — targeting police and security officials in neighboring Ingushetia.

The detainee, identified by a lawyer as Nur-Pashi Kulayev, said on both state-run channels that he and other members of the group were told the goal of the raid was "to unleash a war on the whole of the Caucasus" — the same thing President Vladimir Putin said was the attackers' aim.

On Sunday, Channel One showed the detainee looking frightened as he was manhandled by masked law enforcement officers and swearing to Allah that he didn't shoot women and children.

Criticism of the government response to the tragedy was mounting, with state television chiding officials for understating the magnitude of the crisis, for their slowness to admit that previous recent attacks were by terrorists and for their apparent paralysis.

"At such moments, society needs the truth," Rossiya television commentator Sergei Brilyov said Sunday night.

Yet the criticism, which was almost certainly sanctioned by the Kremlin, stopped short of the president himself.

Brilyov criticized generals who "can't bring themselves to act until the president throws ideas to them." On Saturday, Putin had criticized Russia's law enforcement agencies for failing to rise to the challenge of terrorism.

Two politicians — liberal Irina Khakamada and nationalist Sergei Glazyev — called separately for an independent investigation into the hostage crisis, the Interfax news agency reported.

Khakamada said two questions had to be addressed: whether the authorities had prior information about planned terrorist attacks, and what the government was doing to stabilize the situation in Chechnya.

After the siege ended, Russian news agencies cited unidentified security sources as saying that the planners of the raid were believed to have scouted at least two schools in Beslan.

"Judging by everything, they felt the better one for their goals was the main building of School No. 1 with its half-basement gymnasium annex, where the floor had to be replaced," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a law-enforcement official as saying.

"The bandits were able to bring into the school a large quantity of weapons, ammunition, equipment and explosives, under the guise of planks, cement and other building material, enough to defend the seized place for a long period," the official said, according to the report.

Interfax quoted a deputy prosecutor as saying some weapons and ammunition were brought to the school in advance.

The approximately 30 raiders arrived in a single military-style truck — believed to have been hijacked in neighboring Ingushetia — which, jammed with people, would have been too small to carry much equipment.

Hostages also spoke in news accounts of a huge quantity of explosives in the school — not only the suicide belts worn by some of the raiders but also bombs hung from basketball hoops.

The school tragedy left few families untouched in the industrial town of 30,000, where many leave their doors unlocked. Most people had a relative, friend or neighbor killed or wounded.

The official death toll stood at 335 Monday, plus 30 attackers; the regional health ministry said 326 of the dead had been hostages, and the Emergency Situations Ministry said 156 of the dead were children.

The North Ossetian health ministry said 411 people remained hospitalized, 214 of them children.

As of Sunday, about 100 people were unaccounted for, the Interior Ministry said. Russian media speculated that some of the missing could be wounded victims who were brought to various hospitals unconscious or too deep in shock — or just too young — to identify themselves.

Channel One said the hostage-takers included Kazakhs, Chechens, Arabs, Ingush and Slavs.

North Ossetia's Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said Saturday that 35 attackers were killed. However, Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said Sunday that 32 militants had been involved and the bodies of 30 had been found, Interfax reported.

Three suspects were detained Saturday in Beslan, Interfax reported, citing unidentified law enforcement sources, and Channel One showed an unidentified man who Fridinsky said was among the attackers. Fridinsky said the man, who spoke accented Russian, would be charged and that he was giving useful evidence.

Interfax said the alleged leader of the hostage-takers, an ethnic Ingush named Magomed Yevloyev, had not been found among the dead. Yevloyev is believed to be the leader of the strict Wahhabi sect of Muslims in Ingushetia.

Two U.S. transport planes delivered aid Monday, following a flight from Italy that landed Sunday, bringing antibiotics, bandages and other medical supplies.

At School No. 1, mourners wandered through broken glass, collapsed ceilings and puddles of water. Bouquets were placed on the sills of the gymnasium.

A door smeared with blood lay on its side in one room; in another room, children's shoes were scattered among notebooks, textbooks and papers. Outside, in a book of condolences, was scrawled the message: "Children, forgive us adults."

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