Sergey Ponomarev, Associated Press
MOSCOW Prosecutors examining last year's school siege in Beslan have found no reason to blame security forces for the deaths of 331 hostages during a police raid, the official leading the probe said Tuesday, provoking outrage from relatives of victims.
The comments by Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel differed sharply from last month's report by a regional legislative panel that accused Russian authorities of botching rescue efforts and urged that those responsible for the Sept. 3, 2004, bloodbath be punished.
Shepel, who is heading the investigation by federal prosecutors, said in a statement released by his office that his probe so far had not discovered any mistakes by authorities in dealing with the siege in the southern town.
The statement, which came a day before the Russian parliament was to release results of its own investigation, heated up the simmering anger among Beslan residents, who have argued that authorities bungled their response to the crisis and mounted a cover-up of their mistakes.
"We didn't expect anything else the prosecutors are sticking to their version of events and ignoring victims' testimony," Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, told The Associated Press.
Islamic militants seized Beslan's School No. 1 on the first day of school, taking more than 1,100 children, parents and staff hostage and herding them into the gymnasium, which they rigged with explosives.
The hostages suffered in hot, unsanitary conditions and were denied water by their captors during the ordeal, which ended in explosions and gunfire on the third day of the standoff. The dead hostages included 186 children.
The rebels, who were demanding that Russian troops withdraw from the nearby Chechnya region after a decade of separatist warfare there, had crossed heavily policed territory to reach Beslan, and victims' relatives are convinced they got help from corrupt officials.
Families of the hostages have strongly criticized the rescue operation, saying hostages died needlessly because special forces soldiers used flame-throwers, grenade launchers and tanks against the militants.
Dudiyeva called for top officials involved in the raid to be punished.
"You need to punish those who did not carry out their duties properly. Our children are no longer with us," she said.
Shepel defended the security forces and other rescue personnel, saying all acted appropriately.
"According to the conclusions of the investigation, the expert commission did not find ... any violations that could be responsible for the harmful consequences that resulted from the terrorist act in Beslan," he said.
In a Nov. 29 report, a panel from the North Ossetia regional legislature called actions by the Russian Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service during the siege "unsatisfactory."
The panel said authorities failed to coordinate rescue efforts and made serious missteps, such as grossly underestimating the number of hostages in the siege's early going. It also said it found no evidence to support the government's claim that the climactic battle began when a militant accidentally set off explosives inside the gymnasium.
Shepel said that while his office's investigation found no fault with officials' handling of the raid itself, experts had concluded the system for preventing terrorist acts in Russia does not provide sufficient protection for the country's people.
Russia's southern regions increasingly are plagued by violence, some of it stemming from criminal gang feuds, some spilling over from the separatist conflict in Chechnya.
On Tuesday, a shootout erupted between police officers and suspected rebels they were trying to arrest in the southern Russian district of Dagestan, near Chechnya. One policeman and one alleged militant died, the regional Interior Ministry said.
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