Prague, 9 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is the first day of the Russian school year, Wednesday, 1 September.
In Beslan, a city of 30,000 inhabitants in Russia's Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, parents, students, and teachers are gathering in the early morning at the city's main school for the expected opening ceremonies.
At the same time, a group of militants, in a convoy of three passenger cars, are headed toward the school. The militants, whose identities remain unclear and whose departure point is also unknown, soon arrive at the school building.
This is what happens next, according to Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov's report to President Vladimir Putin: "Having arrived in Beslan, they drove into the school courtyard, where -- following the order of their leader, who went by the name of 'Colonel' -- they surrounded the schoolchildren and adults and led away all the citizens located on the square."
The parents, teachers, and children -- now hostages -- are led into the school gymnasium. For several hours, the situation remains chaotic. Parents and relatives gather outside the school buildings as police reinforcements arrive. At 11:30 a.m. North Ossetia's President Aleksandr Dzasokhov is on the scene. Putin flies to Moscow, cutting short his vacation in Sochi.
According to officials, the hostage takers request talks with local authorities and the release of detainees involved in recent attacks in Ingushetia. They also ask for well-known Moscow-based pediatrician Leonid Roshal -- who mediated the 2002 "Nord-Ost" hostage crisis in Moscow -- to be flown to Beslan. Officials say no other demands are made. They say the hostage takers are holding some 200 to 300 people and draw a link to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov.
In fact, the militants hold some 1,200 people in conditions so cramped that some hostages are forced to sit on each other's hands and feet. According to testimony from former hostages after the crisis, the militants spend the next couple of hours laying down mines and booby traps throughout the gymnasium building.
To this day, it is unclear how they got their weapons into the school. Ustinov, in his report to Putin, claimed the hostage takers brought their arsenal with them, in their three cars. But former hostages say the militants had managed to hide weapons and explosives in the school, prior to the attack, pointing to meticulous preparation and raising questions about how they gained access to the building in the weeks prior to the hostage drama.
Shortly after 1:00 p.m., the hostage takers drop a note from one of the windows outlining their main demand: the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. The demand is widely reported by Russian news agencies, but quickly disappears and is never mentioned by officials.
Later that afternoon, Russian commandos ("spets-naz") arrive and take up positions around the school.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's North Caucasus Service, Akhmed Zakaev, the London-based spokesman for Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, condemns the hostage takers -- rejecting Kremlin claims of Maskhadov's involvement.
So far it is unclear how they got their weapons into the school. Prosecutor-General Ustinov claimed the hostage takers brought their arsenal with them. But former hostages say the militants had managed to hide weapons and explosives in the school prior to the attack.
"Claims of President Maskhadov's involvement in this terrorist act are part of a well-planned misinformation campaign, which also includes statements by [Russian] officials that there were Arab and African mercenaries among the terrorists," Zakaev said. "Their goal is to explain this terrorist act as being part of some foreign conspiracies. Those are lies."
In the early evening, Russia calls for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Doctor Roshal arrives in Beslan. Night falls.
It is now Thursday, 2 September. During the night, the hostage takers speak with Roshal. The content of the conversation is unknown. Before sunrise, news comes that the UN Security Council has voted to condemn the hostage taking. Putin postpones a planned visit to Turkey.
At noon, Lev Dzugaev, the press secretary of the North Ossetian president, says "technical talks" are continuing with the hostage takers on getting them to accept deliveries of food, water, and medicine. The hostage takers' main demand remains unpublicized. Authorities continue to say around 300 hostages are in the school and that they do not know the hostage takers' motives.
At this point, Putin makes his first public comment on the crisis. During a meeting in Moscow with Jordan's King Abdullah, Putin says his main priority in ensuring the welfare of the hostages: "Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task."
Officials of the Federal Security Service (FSB) also exclude any resolution of the standoff by force.
Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev and FSB head Nikolai Patrushev arrive in Beslan and set up a crisis team. Ruslan Aushev, former president of Ingushetia, enters the school to negotiate with the hostage takers.
Twenty-six hostages are soon released. North Ossetian presidential press secretary Lev Dzugaev calls it a "first success" and credits Aushev's negotiating skill.
That evening, at around 8:00 p.m., Dzasokhov and Aushev telephone Zakaev in London. They ask Zakaev whether Maskhadov can use his influence to end the hostage crisis. The fact of the conversation is never made public.
A few hours later, Maskhadov issues a statement on the chechen.org website harshly condemning the hostage taking. Again, Russian state media take no notice.
Three Russian tanks are brought outside the school, to the surprise of parents and local journalists gathered outside.
Overnight, a police officer is wounded by shots fired from the school. Talks are broken off, then resume on Friday, 3 September. Early in the morning, Dzasokhov and Aushev once again telephone Zakaev. He tells them Maskhadov is willing to do anything in his power to put an end to the crisis.
Zakaev detailed the conversation as well as his previous talks with Aushev and Dzasokhov, in an interview with RFE/RL: "Yesterday I spoke with the President of [North] Ossetia, [Aleksandr] Dzasokhov and the former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, and I informed President Maskhadov about the content of our talks. For his part, Maskhadov pledged to do everything in his power to find ways to resolve this situation without blood and without harming the children. Today Dzasokhov and Aushev again called me and we spoke. I told them that I informed [Maskhadov] about our previous conversation. I also outlined [Maskhadov's] position and his efforts to do everything in his power to resolve this situation without bloodshed and any harm coming to the children. He said he was willing to look for ways to achieve this."
Shortly before noon, President Dzasokhov holds a meeting with relatives of the hostages at a Beslan cultural center. He tells them the latest information indicates there are actually over 500 hostages held in the school. Dzasokhov reiterates what many have believed since the beginning -- that the hostage takers' main demand is the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.
Minutes later, Dzosokhov's spokesman says the hostage takers have agreed to hand over the bodies of several people killed during the standoff. A car from the Emergency Situations Ministry pulls up to the school with several emergency personnel. According to the official version of events, two explosions go off inside the school. The hostage takers begin shooting at the emergency personnel as well as the crowd waiting outside the school. Chaos breaks out. A group of hostages manages to escape. Russian forces begin storming the school.
Within minutes, four Russian combat helicopters join the battle. The roof of the gymnasium collapses. Outside the school, there is mayhem, as groups of children and other hostages stream out, in the midst of gunfire from all sides.
Within a couple of hours, Russian forces claim control of most of the school, but it is not until late into the night that the shooting dies down.
The ultimate toll is horrific: over 300 dead, half of them children. More than twice that many are injured, and 200 are missing. The missing have still not been found. What happened to them remains a mystery.
The authorities initially say some of the hostage takers managed to escape during the chaos of the rescue operation. Later, they claim all of the militants have been killed, except for three who have been taken into custody. They say 10 of the dead militants are Arabs and one is an African. No proof is ever provided.
Still later, one detainee is shown on state television. He is now the only survivor, according to the authorities. His story exactly matches Ustinov's report to Putin: the attack was planned by Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen commander Shamil Basaev. The militants were directed by a sadistic madman called the 'Colonel.' Their aim from the very start was to blow up the school.
Negotiations, according to Ustinov, would have been fruitless: "Constant threats were addressed to the hostages and members of the bandit group [by the group leader]: 'We are going to die anyway, we have only one goal and that is to carry out this terrorist act.' After two days, when they started changing their system of explosives for some reason, an explosion took place, after which panic began, many of the hostages tried to escape, and the gunmen opened fire."
But the official version is contradicted by many eyewitnesses and former hostages. According to the newspaper "Izvestiya," whose reporter interviewed one of the emergency staffers who drove up to the school in the minutes before the siege was broken, there were no initial explosions.
He said someone -- he does not know who -- opened fire from outside the school, at which point the militants fired back. Then came the explosions. Other witnesses suggest the initial gunfire might have come from among the crowd of parents and relatives waiting outside the school. Some say the explosions were actually Russian tank fire, which blew off part of the school's roof.
Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer also doubts the Kremlin's version of an unplanned, last-minute decision to storm the school, saying the appearance of attack helicopters points to a coordinated, pre-planned move.
"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," Felgenhauer said.
Whether the hostage takers intended to die from the very start is also unclear. They did in fact have a demand -- the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya -- despite the Kremlin's initial denial of any motive.
And it appears they were also open to talks. In addition to the negotiations with Aushev, one former hostage interviewed by "Izvestiya," a 15-year-old-girl, says she spent several minutes talking to the chief militant who told her of the pain of losing his daughter in the war in Chechnya. Shouldn't a professional psychologist have been included in the negotiating team, "Izvestiya" asks?
But asking too many questions does not seem to pay off. "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov said he was forced to resign after the paper's publisher objected to his "negative" coverage of the crisis. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitskii was detained at a Moscow airport on charges of hooliganism and never made it to Beslan. Anna Politkovskaya, another well-known reporter with extensive experience in the Caucasus, said she was poisoned on her flight out of Moscow, en route to Beslan. After losing consciousness, she awoke in a hospital in Rostov-na-Donu.
Ruslan Aushev, who could hold many of the answers to the hostages' identities and motives, has disappeared, turning off his cell phone.
[For more on the North Ossetian hostage tragedy and the recent wave of terrorism in Russia, see RFE/RL's "Terror in Russia"