Should Russia Share Blame for the Beslan Massacre?

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This Friday, September 1, marks the second anniversary of Russia's "9/11" — the atrocious seizure of more than 1,128 hostages in a Beslan school, which left more than 330 — most of them children — dead in an ensuing slaughter. And as hard as that milestone will be to endure, newly released claims about Russia's possible responsibility for and role in the massacre will make it much more painful to bear.

A new report by Russian MP Yuri Savelyev contradicts the official history of the tragedy, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military never planned on assaulting the seized school, but only joined the fighting once terrorists' bombs went off inside. Savelyev states that the shots, allegedly fired by the Russians in response to explosions, could not be physically fired from their stated positions. Instead, he insists that the government forces shot first, using bazookas, flamethrowers, and then tanks and choppers, and it was in fact the first bazooka and flamethrower shots that led to the massive explosions inside the school building and the ensuing catastrophe.

An ardent nationalist and former rector of the St. Petersburg-based Baltic Mechanical Engineering University ( who was personally placed under sanctions by the U.S. government back in 1999 for letting Iranian students in on sensitive military-related research), Savelyev is an expert on explosions who happened to be present in Beslan during the tragedy. Later, he became a member of the official parliamentary investigative commission on Beslan, which has yet to present its report.

His own report is based purely on his expertise as a scientist. He found window frames and doors, blown out outside in the eastern side of the school building, rather than inside in the western one, as should have been the case, he submits, if the official version of the explosions was correct. He also analyzed the nature of the explosions on the southern side of gym, and found that the basic explosion under the school gym window could not have been made by the terrorists' homemade device. In fact, he claims that none of the explosions within the first 22 seconds could have been made by the terrorists' weapons. "None of the official versions is supported by science," Savelyev insists. "They simply contradict science."

As disturbing as these conclusions are, this is not the first time these and similar accusations have been made against Putin's government, which has vehemently denied any suggestion that anything but the official version was what really occurred. Almost from the time the tragedy took place, advocates for the victims of Beslan have argued that the Kremlin's first priority was wiping out the terrorists regardless of collateral damage, and that it deliberately frustrated the talks and started the assault.

Indeed, just several days after the Beslan tragedy, Akhmed Zakayev, then the Chechens' chief rebel envoy in London, told TIME in a phone interview that on September 2, then rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov (killed by the Russian forces in March, 200 5) gave him orders to do everything possible to save the children." Zakayev said they both "were horrified at this atrocity." Though Maskhadov and Zakayev were not part of the faction that initiated the school operation, they wielded sufficient authority and moral weight to order them to release the hostages in exchange for their safe passage.

At the time, Zakayev revealed that he had been in communication with then President of North Ossetia Alexander Dzasokhov, head of the Beslan crisis task force. They nearly worked out the details for Maskhadov and Zakayev to come to Beslan and help win the release of the hostages. In fact, just shortly before the assault started, Dzasokhov told the relatives of the hostages that there would be no assault, and that the crisis would be resolved without the use of force. Such an outcome, however, would have legitimized Maskhadov and won him lots of goodwill in both Russia and abroad, something Putin surely would not have appreciated.

"There existed another, real task force," explains Elena Milashina, Novaya Gazeta's investigative reporter, who did brilliant work on unraveling Beslan. "[It] was headed by the FSB [the heir to the KGB] from Moscow that had been preparing an assault right from the outset. Having the hostages released through negotiations did not meet their agenda, as set by the Kremlin. "

Savelyev's findings confirm, Ella Kesayeva, Chair of the Voice of Beslan Public Committee, told TIME in a phone interview Wednesday morning, "that the authorities are as guilty in murdering our children as the terrorists," because the Kremlin-ordered assault also abruptly killed the negotiating process that could realistically get the hostages released. "Putin had our children butchered, and used the massacre to build his one-person rule of this country."

And in fact, only ten days after the Beslan disaster, Putin made a statement that was to reshape this country drastically. Russia was at war with terrorists, Putin said, invoking "hidden enemies" and the threat to this country's integrity. He pledged to mobilize the nation to fight back in "the total and cruel and full-scale war," and to launch an efficient crisis-management system, "which will include principally new approaches to law enforcement agencies."

Putin's new program included scrapping popular elections of regional governors; allowing the parliamentary elections only on tightly controlled party tickets (which eliminates independent deputies from future Dumas); and launching the so-called Public Chamber as a token Kremlin-controlled voice of civil society.

Within two years, Putin had fully accomplished his program, outlined in the wake of the Beslan tragedy: he has a rubber-stamp Parliament. He has intimidated the mass media. He has firmly taken over Russia's main riches of oil and gas. He subdued the regions and enlarged the powers of the FSB. In spite of that, reports of terror bombings and shootings have grown into a routine daily occurrence.

"Savelyev is a member of our commission, and we studied his view," Alexander Torshin, Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council (the upper house of Russia's Parliament) and Chair of the Beslan Inquiry Commission, told the Interfax wire agency. "But we turned it down, as the facts he cites were not persuasive."

Kesayeva entertained no hope that the authorities would accept Savelyev's findings. "They'll besmirch him, like they have been besmirching all of us for not dying along with our children," she says. Still, she believes that one day, "the Russian authorities, responsible for Beslan, will have to answer for that."