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Russia: Rumors, Theories Still Swirl Around Beslan Tragedy

<div class="caption"><div class="watermark"> <a href="http://gdb.rferl.org/9628C7FB-1C47-4AED-89DA-E1708D3C105C_mw800_mh600.jpg" rel="ibox" title=""> <img alt="" src="http://gdb.rferl.org/9628C7FB-1C47-4AED-89DA-E1708D3C105C_w203.jpg" class="photo" border="0"></a></div><p></p></div><graphic/>A Russian intraparliamentary commission charged with investigating last month's school hostage massacre in Beslan recently returned from the city. The commission's official report is not due to be made public until the end of its investigation, which may continue for at least another six months. Meanwhile, unsubstantiated theories and rumors continue to swirl around the siege, during which 340 people, nearly half of them children, were killed, according to official figures.

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By Valentinas Mite
Prague, 26 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Seven weeks after the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, questions linger about what exactly happened and whether the ensuing bloodbath could have been avoided with better planning and training.

The tragedy continues to preoccupy the Russian press, with media outlets publishing and broadcasting inflammatory reports, most of them largely unsubstantiated. But local residents' mistrust of the authorities and their grief over the loss of loved ones in the massacre appear to be causing an almost insatiable appetite for such stories.

Last week, the Moscow weekly "Versiya" published an article from Beslan claiming that the number of people killed in the tragedy may be much higher than the official death toll.

One of the authors of the Versiya" article, Radoslav Shishov told RFE/RL that the shadow of the tragedy hangs over Beslan. "I have the impression of Beslan as a town overwhelmed by death," he said. "Before a person comes to Beslan itself, he passes a cemetery, this memorial cemetery, where the victims of the tragedy are buried. This sense begins in this place. When you see this cemetery, you understand that doubts about the credibility of the information on TV or radio are justifiable."

He said the article in "Versiya" was triggered by doubts many in Beslan share about the official death toll. "It is enough to count the graves in the cemetery and to see people still burying the members of their families to doubt the official version," Shishov said. "I think it will become clear in the end that no less than 1,000 people died. I hope that our authorities will tell the truth because the only request we, the journalists of 'Versiya,' had from people was one: 'Tell the truth about us.'"
"It is enough to count the graves in the cemetery and to see people still burying the members of their families to doubt the official version."


Officially, 340 people died in the Beslan siege. A statement attributed to Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev claimed responsibility for the hostage taking.

In the "Versiya" article of 20 October, unnamed officials are quoted as saying that, on the day after the assault, a morgue in Vladikavkaz where the bodies of many of those killed people were taken issued 650 death certificates. The article in "Versiya" offers no further evidence to back up its claim.

Shishov said few local residents believe the official version of events and want the Russian authorities to accept that what happened in Beslan is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of post-Soviet Russia.

The BBC's Russian Service recently quoted Arkadii Baskaev, a member of the Russian intraparliamentary commission investigating the Beslan seige, as saying that heavy weapons -- including tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, and even flamethrowers -- were used in the assault against the hostage takers. It is unclear, however, at what stage of the assault such weapons may have been used.

The head of the commission, Federation Council Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Torshin, acknowledges that many Russian newspapers publish articles strongly disputing the official death toll, but that most have no credibility.

"You know, there are many articles, not only in 'Versiya.' If we decided to investigate them all, we would have to forget our work and talk only with journalists. Maybe in the near future, somebody will write something else. But we aren't closing our eyes to these publications, either," Torshin said.

He said the commission will listen to all the rumors and investigate those theories that may contain some "grains of evidence." He said it is not unusual for participants in such dramatic incidents to have completely different recollections of the same events.

Another member of the commission, Vladimir Fiodorov, said the commission is working on the case every day and holding frequent meetings to hear the latest reports by officials or working groups.

Aleksei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the conflicting theories and rumors are evidence that people don't trust the authorities and that the government itself has not done a good job of being open with the public.

Malashenko said the biggest problem is the lack of a civil society in Russia. "Such differences of opinion wouldn't exist in case of a normal civil society able to demand from the authorities -- from the state as a whole -- solid information, solid data, and information about who is to blame," he said.

Meanwhile, those local residents who witnessed the tragedy pin the biggest share of the blame on the incompetence of local authorities.

German Rivazov was at the school during the tragedy and helped to carry the wounded from the building. "People with stretchers were getting deeper into the building than local police," he said. "The actions of the local police were, on the whole, a disaster. I knew that they were not trained, not competent, but I couldn't imagine to such a degree."

He claimed that local police panicked during the siege. "They clearly had no idea at whom they were shooting -- or why," he said. "Militants were shooting from the building, and local policemen were shooting like crazy at the direction of some trees and that's all."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)

[For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".]

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