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Analysis: Unanswered Questions In Aftermath Of Beslan

[For more on the North Ossetian hostage tragedy and the recent wave of terrorism in Russia, see RFE/RL's "Terror in Russia" --> page.]

One day after the gun battle that precipitated the end of the Beslan hostage taking, any number of crucial questions remain unanswered. The full death toll was unclear. Estimates early in the day on 4 September ranged from 200-250 (twice the number of civilians killed during the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002), with Interfax reporting that 210 bodies had been recovered from the school building. The number of injured had been estimated at between 400 and 700. Nor was it clear why for over 36 hours North Ossetian and Russian officials claimed that there were only 354 hostages, while the true figure was over three times that number.

The exact number and provenance of the hostage takers was likewise not known with any certainty. Initially there were said to be between 17 and 40 of them. Reuters on 2 September quoted North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev as saying that the Beslan hostage takers include both Ingush and Chechens, and that "they speak good Russian." The website, for its part, quoted Dzantiev as saying that there were also Ossetians and Russians among the militants. Valerii Andreev, head of the North Ossetian branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), dismissed the hostage takers' ethnicity on 2 September as irrelevant. Late on 3 September, Andreev alleged that at least 10 of the hostage takers were Arabs.

North Ossetian President Aleskandr Dzasokhov said on 2 September that during negotiations that day with former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, the hostage takers had said they were demanding an end to the war in Chechnya; the withdrawal from Chechnya of Russian troops; and the release of the estimated 27-30 fighters held in detention in Ingushetia for their alleged participation in the 21-22 June multiple attacks on Interior Ministry facilities in that republic.
The most serious question is what precipitated the use of force at midday local time on 3 September, when talks were still under way with the hostage takers on recovering the bodies of adult hostages killed two days earlier.

"Gazeta" on 2 September quoted an unnamed Russian military official as identifying the commander of the Beslan hostage takers as Magomed Evloev (aka Magas), one of Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev's lieutenants, who reportedly commanded the June raids into Ingushetia. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 June, however, quoted Major General Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian counterterrorism headquarters in the North Caucasus, as saying that Magomed Evloev was killed in a shootout the previous day. And on 4 September, the independent Ingushetian website claimed that "Magas" is not in fact Magomed Evloev, who does not exist, but a former Ingush police officer named Ali Musaevich Taziev. In the afternoon of 3 September, when fighting for the school was still continuing, unnamed Russian military officials quoted by ITAR-TASS suggested that the hostage taking was financed by an Arab named Abu Omar As-Seyf, whom they identified as "Al-Qaeda's representative in Chechnya."

The most serious question, however, is what precipitated the use of force at midday local time on 3 September, when talks were still under way with the hostage takers on recovering the bodies of adult hostages killed two days earlier. At that juncture, the school building was surrounded by hundreds of Russian troops. But apparently no effort had been made to cordon off a security area to prevent unauthorized individuals venturing within gunshot range of the building. On the contrary, parents of the hostages, some of them armed, were allowed to keep vigil in the vicinity, "The Guardian" reported on 4 September. Some of those parents, according to FSB official Andreev, returned fire on 3 September when the hostage takers began shooting at hostages who sought to escape through holes apparently blasted in the side of the school building by Russian special troops. At that juncture, Russian forces launched an all-out onslaught, fighting their way through the school in a bid to neutralize the hostage takers, some of whom managed to escape but were later apprehended.

British security experts quoted by "The Guardian" criticized the Russian military for a total lack of control, command, and coordination. One former SAS operative described it as one of the worst hostage-release efforts he had ever seen or read about, pointing to an absence of basic planning on the part of the Russian military: "They should have made some plan in case it went wrong. When the shooting started, there was no military backup. Troops did not seem to have radios to communicate." A second former SAS operative argued that the Russian special forces "should have planned an assault the first night and hit hard and fast."

A Stratfor analysis dated 4 September similarly quoted unnamed Russian security experts as arguing that special forces units could have been deployed immediately from Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Mozdok in order to strike immediately at the hostage takers before they had a chance to mine the school building and take up defensive positions. That analysis further suggested that the Russian authorities misinterpreted the hostage takers' intentions from the outset and proceeded on the assumption that it would be possible to negotiate an agreement similar to that struck with Basaev during the Budennovsk hostage taking in June 1995, to let the hostage takers escape in return for the release of the hostages. The repeated assertions by Dzasokov and Andreev on the morning of 3 September that the Russian authorities would not resort to force to try to secure the hostages' release substantiate that hypothesis. Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, had said on 2 September that "Our main goal is to save the lives and health of the hostages, and the activities of our forces involved in the liberation of hostages is subordinate to this goal."

Even before the 3 September bloodbath, Western press commentaries were arguing that the sole hope for ending the war in Chechnya lies in beginning negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, seen as representing the moderate wing of the Chechen resistance. But Putin's previous conflation of Maskhadov with terrorism and Al-Qaeda suggests the likelihood he would condone any such talks is remote. On 4 September, reported that the FSB cordoned off the homes in Znamenskoe the previous day, and then arrested the elderly father of Maskhadov's wife Kusama, together with her sister and two brothers and their families, including small children.