Russia Beslan School Takeover


Overhead map of school showing initial positions of Russian forces.

September 1, 2004.

Chechen terrorists’ preference for large-group attacks and the holding of large groups of hostages was seen two years earlier with the takeover of a Moscow theater. The organization, with other ethnic groups joining them, increased the pressure on the government and the public by taking over an elementary school on the first day of classes.

On September 1, 2004, at 9:00 A.M., 32 terrorists, including Chechens, Kazakhs, Russians, Ingush, Ossetians, and at least 10 Arabs, drove up in a military-style GAZ-66 truck and shot their way into School No. 1 in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia, near Chechnya, during the morning and took 1,200 people, including hundreds of students and parents, hostage on the first day of school. At least 11 adults died in the initial shootout with the terrorists, who were wearing camouflage. At least two female terrorists wore explosive belts. The terrorists set up a pedal mechanism to an explosive and threatened to blow up the school if rescuers attacked them and said they would kill 50 hostages for every kidnapper killed, 20 for each wounded.

The school had been defended by only three security guards; one was killed and the two others were injured in the initial shootout.

By mid-afternoon, 15 children, who were hidden in the boiler room by their English teacher, ran to safety. The terrorists had attempted to open the heavy iron door with two grenades, with no success.

The hostage-takers demanded the release of 30 Chechen prisoners and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. By phone, the terrorists asked to talk to the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

The terrorists initially refused to permit medicine, food, and drink to be brought in for the hostages. By the third day, the tap water was running short, and some children drank urine. Many of the children stripped to their underwear to try to escape the suffocating heat in the school. The terrorists also rejected safe passage.

Some of the hostages later said that the terrorists were Wahhabis, wearing long beards and prayer caps.

Hundreds of Russian troops surrounded the school with armored vehicles. The perimeter broke down, however, and numerous armed townspeople joined the siege. In the afternoon of September 2, 2004, the terrorists fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), setting a car alight. They again fired RPGs the evening of September 3, 2004, injuring a police officer.

A local legislator said on September 2, 2004, at 9:00 P.M. that 20 male hostages had been executed inside the school. The male hostages had been herded to a different location, away from the children and women, and shot. One man had been executed an hour into the siege.

On September 3, 2004, the terrorists freed 26 young children and their mothers. Gunfire was often heard coming from inside the school. Talks were suspended. Freed hostages said the terrorists had mined the school and suspended 16–18 bombs from the ceiling of the gymnasium, where many of the hostages were herded.

The terrorists used gas masks to ensure that if would-be rescuers flooded the area with knockout gas, as had been done in the 2002 Moscow theater siege, they would not be affected.

On September 4, 2004, around 1:00 P.M., the 52-hour siege ended when troops rushed the school after hearing explosions in the gym. The troops had not planned on rushing the school, but had no choice when the terrorists opened fire on fleeing children. At least 338 hostages, including 156 children; 10 Russian Special Forces rescuers; and 30 terrorists died from gunshot wounds, fire from the explosions, shrapnel, and the collapsing roof of the gymnasium.

More than 1 percent of Beslan’s population was killed.

Itar-TASS reported that the attack was financed by Abu Omar as-Seyf, an Arab alleged to represent al Qaeda in Chechnya, and directed by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. An escaped hostage said she recognized some of the terrorists as having earlier done construction work on the school, leading investigators to suggest that they had hidden their weapons in the school during construction.

A Muslim group claiming loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed credit on a website.

On September 5, 2004, the Russian government announced on state television that it had lied to the public about the scale of the hostage crisis. The broadcast made no apology that the government had claimed that only 354 hostages were inside the school. Questions remained about how many terrorists there were (reports varied from 16 to 40); how many terrorists were alive, free, or captured; how many people died; and how many had been captive. Many believed the death toll was higher than the official figure of 338. (On September 6, 2004, the government dropped the number to 334, including 156 children, and said that 1,180 hostages were involved.)

A captured terrorist identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev was put on Russian state television on September 6, 2004. He was injured and had trouble talking, but said that “we gathered in the forest and the Colonel—it’s his nickname—and they said we must seize the school in Beslan.” He credited Basayev with giving the orders. He noted that another Chechen commander, Aslan Maskhadov, also gave orders. His group included Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and people of other nationalities. “When we asked the Colonel why we must do it, he said, ‘Because we need to start war in the entire territory of the North Caucasus.’ ” Many of the school terrorists had also taken part in the June raids in Ingushetia that killed 90 people. The Washington Post reported that a Western intelligence service indicated that some of the terrorists came from Jordan and Syria.

Authorities detained relatives of Basayev and Maskhadov on the second day of the siege.

Russian authorities said that surveillance tape of the terrorists indicated that they had argued among themselves as to whether to escape or continue the siege. The group was led by four men and took phoned orders from Chechen commander Basayev. The leaders included a Chechen, a Russian, an Ingush, and an Ossetian, and were identified by their code names of Abdullah, Fantomas, The Colonel, and Magas.

Fantomas was a bodyguard of Basayev.

Abdullah (aka Vladimir Khodoyev, variant Khodov), had fought alongside Basayev earlier. He had upbraided the other gunmen when they permitted hostages to take a drink of water late in the takeover.

The Colonel was often in the gym and was believed by the survivors to be a Russian.

Magas (aka Ali Taziyev), 30, was a former police officer who disappeared on October 10, 1998, while working as a guard for a local official, according to press accounts. He and another police officer were guarding the official’s wife in a market when Chechens kidnapped the trio. She was ransomed in late 1999. The other officer’s body was found in 2000. Magas joined the terrorists and led an attack in Ingushetia in June. Some authorities believed he had staged the kidnapping and had joined the terrorists earlier. He became head of the Ingush Jamaat, a group allied with the Chechens. He led the June raids in Ingushetia, killing dozens of prosecutors and policemen. Magas is a common name, first heard in the terrorist milieu in the April 2004 assassination attempt against Ingushetian president Murat Zyazikov. Police initially believed he was Magomed Yevloyev. A man by that name was killed in Malgobek, but it was later determined that he was an unrelated murder suspect. Another Magomed Yevloyev was killed in Galashki, but he also was not the right Magas.

All four leaders were killed in the gun battle.

The terrorists videotaped the siege; the tape was shown on Russian television on September 7, 2004, and picked up around the world. Authorities also reported that they had tapped into a walkie-talkie call from a terrorist. President Putin reported, “One asks, ‘What’s happening? I hear noise,’ and the other says, ‘It’s okay, I’m in the middle of shooting some kids. There’s nothing to do.’ They were bored, so they shot kids. What kind of freedom fighters are these?” Russian demanded the extradition from the United Kingdom of Zakayev and other Chechen separatists who had been given political asylum.

Security services reported on September 8, 2004, that the terrorist leader shot one of his own men who did not want to take children hostage, then blew up the two women by flipping the electronic control on their detonators. Police also said they had been aided by a local police officer. Authorities said the gym explosion had been an accident when the terrorists were trying to rearrange the explosives. The Kremlin also backtracked on saying that 10 Arabs were involved but continued to claim that a multinational group of extremists was involved. Moscow offered a $10 million reward for the capture or killing of Basayev and Maskhadov. The next day, Chechen rebel websites offered a $20 million bounty for President Putin’s capture.

By September 9, 2004, Russian officials had identified six Chechens and four Ingush as involved in the attack squad. Bomb techs defused 127 homemade bombs in the school.

On September 10, 2004, President Putin approved a parliamentary investigation into the attack. He also complained about American and British calls for negotiations with Chechens, suggesting that this was equivalent to calling for negotiations with al Qaeda. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that Western countries were giving asylum to Chechen separatists.

On September 16, 2004, a key advisor to President Putin, Aslakhanov, said that the president had been prepared to release 30 Chechens during the siege. Aslakhanov said that he was about to go into the school to talk to the hostage-takers, with whom he had spoken by phone three times, when the explosives went off.

The next day, Basayev, using the alias Abdallakh Shamil, said on Kavkaz-Center, an Islamic website based in Lithuania, that his group was responsible and threatened more attacks on Russian civilians if independence was denied. He said:

The Kremlin vampire destroyed and wounded one thousand children and adults by giving the order to storm the school for the sake of imperial ambitions. . . . We are sorry about what happened in Beslan. It’s simply that the war, which Putin declared on us five years ago, which has destroyed more than forty thousand Chechen children and crippled more than five thousand of them, has gone back to where it started.

The posting said that the terrorists “made a fatal mistake” by allowing a Russian emergency services vehicle onto school grounds to remove bodies of people killed in the initial storming of the building. He claimed that two terrorists who went outside to watch the removal of the bodies were shot by troops. He said that the terrorists had deployed 20 mines, connected together in one circuit. “I personally trained this group in a forest, and I tested this system. Either all bombs would have exploded or not a single one. . . . We suggest that independent experts should check the fragments and types of wounds,” implying that Russian bombs had killed the children. The posting claimed that there were 33 hostage-takers, including 2 Arabs. Basayev said that the operation cost 8,000 euros (circa $9,800) plus some weapons stolen from Russian forces. “I don’t know bin Laden, don’t receive any money from him, but would not mind.”

On January 29, 2005, the parliamentary investigating commission said that some law enforcement officers were involved. Two accomplices had been detained, three were being sought, and paperwork was in the process to arrest two more. On May 29, 2007, a Russian court granted amnesty to three police officers who had been charged with negligence for failing to prevent the attack.

On May 17, 2005, the trial began of lone surviving terrorist Kulayev on charges of murder and terrorism in the case. On May 16, 2006, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in North Ossetia ruled that Kulayev had taken part in murder and terrorism. On May 26, 2006, he was sentenced to life in prison.

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