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Relatives Mark Third Beslan Anniversary

Women light candles in the destroyed school sport hall in Beslan, September 1, 2007. (AFP) September 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia today marks the third anniversary of the Beslan hostage tragedy in which more than 330 people were killed, most of them children.

But as bells tolled and tears fell, many of the victims' relatives expressed anger at the authorities for what they believe was a botched operation and an incomplete investigation.

Thousands of people gathered for a memorial service in Beslan to mark the day when, exactly three years ago, armed militants herded more than 1,000 parents, children, and teachers into the gymnasium of Beslan's School Number One. The hostage-takers were demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from neighboring Chechnya.

The siege last three days and ended in a fierce battle between Russian security forces and militants that killed some 330 hostages, more than half of them children.

Mourners today laid flowers and lit candles under the portraits of victims that line the walls of the charred gymnasium.

No senior government official was in attendance.

Putin Visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a brief homage to the Beslan victims during a visit to a school in the southern city of Astrakhan.

"We cannot forget about these children who will never finish school. I am referring to the tragic events in Beslan. Today we must think about this too. But whatever happened, life nonetheless goes on both in the country and in the world," Putin said.

"Why is there no objective investigation? Why is the evidence we gather and give to the prosecutor's office, to investigators, to courts, simply ignored?"

In Beslan, however, time has failed to heal the emotional wounds, and the anniversary of the siege is marked by anger.

Rita Sedakova, a member of the Beslan Mothers Committee support group, lost her daughter in the siege.

"Our president, our ministers and generals, they're all still in their posts. We, mothers, are the ones who have been punished," Sedakova told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "After all we have endured, especially those mothers who were in the gymnasium and went through all of this physically, where are we supposed to find the strength to live on?"

Cover-Up Accusations

Families of the victims accuse the government of seeking to cover up what they believe was a botched rescue operation.

They are angry that only one person has been brought to justice for the massacre -- Nurpashi Kulayev, who authorities claim is the only surviving hostage taker.

Hostages freed on September 3, 2004 (epa)

Three local policemen were found guilty of negligence in the run-up to the siege but were granted amnesty earlier this year.

Three years on, the hostage tragedy is still generating more questions than answers.

Ella Kesayeva lost two nephews in the siege and questions why no one in the security forces was punished.

"Why is there no objective investigation? Why is the evidence we gather and give to the prosecutor's office, to investigators, to courts, simply ignored? In Beslan, law-enforcement agencies, the army, special services -- those whose duty it is to rescue, defend, and protect people in this country -- abused their power. Instead of rescuing people, they used tanks and flame-throwers," Kesayeva said.


Officials blame the hostage takers for starting the battle in which most hostages were killed by setting off a bomb inside the school. Aleksandr Torshin, the head of an official parliamentary commission investigating the events, has confirmed this version.

But many survivors and witnesses accuse soldiers of provoking the massacre by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the school, causing the roof to collapse and sparking a fierce blaze. Some also say they saw tanks fire on the school.

State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, who laid flowers in the school today, vowed a thorough investigation.

Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, told relatives of victims in Beslan that the number of terror attacks in Russia has decreased by 40 percent over the past three years.

But this is unlikely to ease the grief of those who lost their loved-ones in the massacre.

Angry posters calling for the culprits to be called to account have been hung on the walls of ruins of School Number One. One reads: "Accomplices of terrorists are terrorists themselves." Another says "The authorities cannot be forgiven for allowing Beslan."

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

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