Prague, 6 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Flags are flying at half-staff across Russia as the people of Beslan, in North Ossetia, continue to bury their dead following the bloody hostage crisis at the local school on 3 September.
Shock and grief are the predominant emotions in this small Caucasus town, as one young man told reporters today: "I feel terrible. I had a sister here who died. My other sister is in hospital. What do I feel? Do you hear the people crying? That is how I feel."
But mixed with the tears are increasing questions about what exactly happened in Beslan, when the three-day-old hostage crisis ended in chaos.
The idea that Russian forces decided to break the siege at the last minute in reaction to the militants' actions is a fabrication meant to cover up the disastrous outcome of what he believes was a planned assault.
According to the latest government figures, some 330 people -- about half of them children -- were found dead after Russian special forces stormed the school. How they died and whether all of them were killed during the assault is unclear. More than 500 people remain hospitalized. But three days after the event, scores of people are still unaccounted for. Locals continue to search for missing relatives and wonder why the authorities cannot help them locate their missing loved ones.
Initially, the authorities said 16 terrorists were behind the hostage taking and that 13 were reported to have escaped. Then, different officials cited numbers ranging from 29 to 34 terrorists, saying all had been killed, except for three who were captured. Nine of the hostage takers were said to be Arabs, and a 10th was reported to be African. Moscow has offered no proof to back up these claims, however.
Last night, Russian television broadcast footage of one man in custody -- clearly of Caucasian origin -- who was identified as one of the hostage takers.
The Russian authorities say it was never their intention to storm the school and end the siege by force. They say the assault by special forces came as a last-minute decision when the hostage takers began shooting at ambulance drivers who had come to collect the bodies of dead hostages on 3 September. At that moment, another group of hostages managed to escape from the school, shooting and explosions broke out, forcing commandos to act. But the source of the explosions still remains unclear. Did the hostage takers unwittingly set off booby traps they had planted throughout the building, as some have suggested, or did Russian commandos disguised as medical personnel initiate hostilities by firing a rocket-propelled grenade or other weapon, as other versions have it?
Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer disputes the official version of events as presented by the government. He tells RFE/RL that the idea that Russian forces decided to break the siege at the last minute in reaction to the militants' actions is a fabrication meant to cover up the disastrous outcome of what he believes was a planned assault. Just as in the hostage-taking drama at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002, he accuses the authorities of hiding the truth from the Russian public.
From the very start, he notes, the authorities downplayed the magnitude of the crisis, saying some 300 hostages had been seized in Beslan, when the real number was more than 1,000. While foreign news channels such as CNN and the BBC broke into programming to bring live updates from Beslan, Russian state television kept quiet: "It is perfectly clear that from the very start, from September 1, when the hostages were seized, the Russian authorities and the special services lied. They lied intentionally about what was happening. They misled everyone about how many hostages there were, intentionally diminishing their number several times over. They lied, saying that the hostage takers had refused to conduct negotiations when, in fact, it was the Russian authorities who refused to hold talks from the very start, just as in the Dubrovka case, when they also refused to conduct negotiations. They lied, saying that the hostage takers had no demands when, in fact, they had demanded that President [Vladimir] Putin sign a decree withdrawing Russian forces from Chechnya."
Felgenhauer says the idea that the special forces mounted a last-minute, spontaneous attack is not technically credible, as the offensive was backed up by attack helicopters -- proving advance coordination: "Although there is an air base near Beslan, I know how much time it takes to transmit instructions to pilots. Even if the helicopter was fueled, armed, and waiting, and the pilots were already suited up -- if it had been a spontaneous decision -- they would have had to wait for instructions. An order would have had to be given. They would have had to get aboard, to warm up the engine. They could not have made it to the school in less than half an hour or even more."
Reports that the hostage-takers had managed to hide weapons and explosives in the school, prior to the attack, points to their meticulous preparation, raising questions about how they gained access to the building in the weeks preceding the attack. Initially, some reports said the school had undergone extensive reconstruction work during the summer, providing an opportunity for the militants to disguise themselves as workers and hide their munitions in the building. But those reports were later disputed by some local residents, who said the reconstruction work only amounted to a paint job, leaving the question of when and how such quantities of weapons could have been hidden in the building unanswered.
Questions also have been raised about the lack of involvement on the part of the local authorities in North Ossetia in trying to defuse the crisis as it was progressing. Respected former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev was the only noted regional figure who played any prominent role in trying to peaceably end the standoff.
North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov could only plead forgiveness from his people after the massacre: "I want to apologize to all of those who have been touched by grief. I say this because we were not able to protect our children and our teachers and our parents."
Finding the truth about who carried out the attack in Beslan is of key importance, as many analysts have noted. If there was, indeed, an Ingush component, as officials have said, there are fears this could touch off ethnic tensions in the region. The two neighbors have long had acrimonious relations and fought a short war in 1992 that resulted in 600 deaths.
On the other hand, if Arab fighters took part in the attack, as the Kremlin claims, it raises questions about Moscow's preparedness to fight international terrorism.
Putin has promised renewed vigilance and new measures to combat terrorism. But as former State Duma deputy and human-rights activist Yuli Rybakov tells RFE/RL, so much money is already being spent on defense and security in Russia that it is hard to see how this can be increased. The question is, rather, how is the money being spent?
"One-third of the budget which the State Duma is about to approve goes for defense, for the provision of our security. One trillion rubles, 30 percent of the budget -- which comes out of our pockets -- is being spent on security. And what is the result? This year's increase in defense spending alone amounts to 100 billion rubles [around $3 billion]. That's just extra money from the budget for our military, and the special services alone will get an additional 80 billion rubles [$2.6 billion]. And do we have the option of checking how this money is spent?"
There are now many people, not only in Beslan, who would like to have an answer.Factbox: Major Terrorist Incidents Tied To Russian-Chechen War For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)