Residents of Beslan mark the fourth anniversary of the school hostage tragedy.
MOSCOW -- Memorial services were held in Moscow and in the Russian republic of North Ossetia to mark the fourth anniversary of the deadly conclusion of the three-day siege at School No. 1 in Beslan.
On September 1, 2004, more than 1,000 children and adults were taken hostage in the North Ossetian town by armed militants demanding a withdrawal of federal forces from Chechnya.
Two days later, more than 330 of them were killed, most from a massive blaze sparked by a firefight between the hostage-takers and the Russian special forces who had been send to Beslan to monitor the siege, and ultimately stormed the school. Eight hundred other hostages were wounded.
Survivors of the Beslan tragedy maintain it was the Russian forces -- and not the hostage-takers -- who initiated the violence. And they want to know why only the sole surviving hostage-taker has been punished for the episode, and no one from the ranks of the Russian security services.
Ella Kesayeva, who lost two nephews and a brother-in-law in the siege, heads the Voice of Beslan support group. She says the group, through its own investigations, has been able to uncover evidence contradicting official enquiries clearing special forces of blame.
"We know that the [federal] tanks were used an hour and a half after the school was stormed. The first casualties actually came from flamethrowers used by the special forces. More than 10 flamethrowers were fired into the building -- fired directly at the gymnasium, where more than 1,000 people were being held hostage," Kesayeva says.
"Why they did it -- that's already another question," she adds. "But the fact remains that accounts from survivors, a scientific report by an independent explosives expert, and the North Ossetian parliamentary commission all came to the same conclusion."
Anneta Gadieva -- who was among the hostages and lost one of her two daughters in the final violence -- is co-chair of the Beslan Mothers committee. She says there has been far too little scrutiny paid to the response of state structures like the Federal Security Service (FSB) during the siege.
"It's a fact that law enforcement organs, the FSB, didn't act properly to prevent the terrorist act. And they can't just brush that off. As soon as the hostages were seized, they were already lying about how many there were, and intentionally lowering the numbers," Gadieva says. Russian officials originally said there were as few as 350 hostages.
The Russian government responded to the siege by initiating a string of reforms -- ostensibly aimed at improving security -- that consolidated power in the Kremlin. It also turned a deaf ear to calls from Beslan for independent investigations and a review of the official version.
Alleged Extremist Content
As the frustration and anger mounted among the Beslan survivors, government officials went so far as to order an investigation into Voice of Beslan for alleged extremist content in its complaints about Kremlin indifference.
Kesayeva remains undaunted, saying a petition has been filed with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to conduct an international probe into the siege.
"We have more than 200 people prepared to testify on what happened in the school," she says. "And we very much hope the European court will take our case, and make it a priority. It's been so long already. A petition for the 2002 'Nord-Ost' hostage case has already been waiting in line for more than five years, and no one is looking at it. We're going to request a priority. We're already beginning to lose people who were injured."
Asked why she thinks government officials have been reluctant to acknowledge the many unanswered questions remaining over the Beslan siege, Kesayeva says, "It's because this is a crime committed by concrete people -- and not simply random siloviki."