The New York Times reports that, in yet another conclusive bit of evidence that Russia is now the neo-Soviet Union, the Kremlin had decided it played no significant role in murdering hundreds in the Belsan disaster, and chosen to cover itself with a sham parliamentary report. David McDuff translates Marina Litvinovich’s reactions to the sham report from Ezhedevny Zhurnal on A Day at a Time.
A parliamentary commission Friday issued its final report on the worst terrorist act in modern Russian history — the seizure of a public school in Beslan in 2004 — briefly highlighting law enforcement mistakes but placing blame for the hundreds of deaths on the Chechan-led militants alone.
The long-awaited conclusion, read aloud by the commission’s chairman during a session of the parliament’s upper house, ended more than two years of investigation into the incident that shocked Russia and the world. The death toll of 334 included 186 children.
The report suggested a hardening of the Kremlin’s position on one of the most painful public episodes of President Vladimir V. Putin’s administration, brushing aside lingering questions about the events and insisting that authorities, in spite of many well-documented problems, had done an adequate job.
The Kremlin had pledged that the special commission, stacked with politicians loyal to Putin and working almost entirely out of public view, would establish the facts and report the truth.
But the delivery of the report’s summary in a speech did little to satisfy embittered survivors and bereaved families, some of whom labeled it a whitewash meant to shield the Kremlin from responsibility for government negligence and disregard for hostages’ lives.
Copies of the full report were given to the Kremlin and parliamentary leaders, but not released to the public or the news media, making it nearly impossible to evaluate the evidence upon which the commission’s conclusions were based.
More than 1,100 people were taken hostage at Middle School No.1 on Sept. 1, 2004, the first day of the academic year in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, in southwestern Russia. The terrorists had been sent by Shamil Basayev, the fugitive leader of a group that sought the independence of Chechnya, a small Muslim republic in the Caucasus.
The captors demanded that Russian forces withdraw from Chechen soil, where they have fought two wars against the separatists since 1994.
In his remarks to parliament, the chairman of the special commission, Aleksandr P. Torshin, called some of the terrorists’ requests “in-executable demands.”
In the three-day siege at the school, 333 died, almost all of them after two explosions in the gymnasium, where the hostages were held, led to a chaotic battle. Another hostage, among hundreds injured and hospitalized, died later.
Torshin said the terrorists intentionally detonated bombs among the hostages, starting the last battle to the surprise of Russian negotiators and commanders.
“It has been established that one of the gang members, acting according to the previously developed plan, actuated a homemade explosive device in the gym,” he said.
That statement went beyond previous government descriptions of the blasts, which have typically said that the bombs exploded in an unexplained mishap, perhaps by accident, as many hostages said immediately after the siege.
The evidence for this new claim was not clear. Torshin had said last year that his commission was waiting for forensic evidence and expert examinations of the blast sites. He made no mention of such materials Friday.
Torshin also dismissed as politically motivated the theory, presented last year by a dissenting commission member, that the explosions began when Russian forces fired rockets into the gymnasium.
The evidence for that theory is incomplete and unclear. Torshin suggested it had been circulated by those who “try to blame the federal authorities with attempting an assault, and shift the responsibility on them for the explosion.”
His summary speech, read from a several-page text, offered the only publicly available insights into the report and the commission’s work.
After giving his speech, Torshin said the commission was disbanded, a quiet and unceremonious end to a project once presented as a way to answer the long list of questions about the siege.
Many of those questions remain matters of vigorous dispute, including how many terrorists were involved; whether they had stashed weapons and ammunition in the school before the siege; and whether some of them escaped or were captured and not acknowledged by the Russian government.
Doubts about the government’s management have also persisted. These include troubling questions about the nature and content of negotiations with the terrorists; why firefighters were not prepared to battle a blaze that consumed the gymnasium; and why so few ambulances were available to transport the hundreds of injured victims.
Ella Kesayeva, who leads the Voice of Beslan support group, suggested the report was meant as a signal that Putin and his circle were no longer interested in having a discussion about the details.
“We personally didn’t expect anything different from Torshin,” she said. Kesayeva lost a teenaged son in the siege.
“If he thinks, despite all the evidence and the testimony of hundreds of hostages,” she added, “that the power structures acted correctly, it is his personal opinion and we, the victims, are not interested in it.
“Who stands behind such a report? The ones who are guilty in this tragedy,” Kesayeva said.
On certain points, Torshin’s report did not seem to square with witness accounts.
He said, for example, that the commission concluded that tanks from Russia’s 58th Army did not fire into the school while hostages were in the building, as witnesses and survivors have said. Two journalists for The New York Times also witnessed two T-72 tanks advance on the school that afternoon; at least one of them fired several times.
In a brief series of points near the end of his speech, Torshin did criticize the authorities.
The command post, he said, was not properly trained. He noted that intelligence agencies had not adequately penetrated or gathered timely information about Chechen terrorist groups, which made preventing the attack difficult.
He also criticized the local police, saying they ignored warnings of imminent terrorist attacks and did not have adequate presence on the roads or near the school that day.
And Torshin noted that some of the terrorists had been arrested and charged with other crimes before the school was seized, but had inexplicably been set free.
Each of these findings, while critical on the surface, were in many ways self-evident and already well known. They offered little new insight into the public understanding of the event.
And in a final sign that the commission would tolerate clear mistakes, Torshin made a coldly understated reference to the repeated official insistence during the siege that only 354 hostages were in the school when, in fact, the government knew there were more than 1,100.
“The work on informing the population was not properly organized,” he said, describing statements that the victims have called outright lies.