Critics Detail Missteps in School Crisis

Delays and problems in communication were factors in the tragedy that left hundreds of hostages dead, they say.

By Kim Murphy
Times Staff Writer

September 17, 2004

MOSCOW — Talks to end the deadly three-day school standoff in Beslan were plagued by delays and poor communications and managed by officials who lacked the power to meet the terrorists' key demand, critics charged Thursday.

Two weeks after the explosive conclusion to the crisis left more than 335 hostages dead, details of the frantic talks with the estimated 31 hostage-takers continue to emerge.

Russian authorities acknowledge that they offered significant concessions to the hostage-takers: safe passage out of the country, money and drugs. Negotiators even agreed to the terrorists' demands to release 30 militants arrested in a June attack in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia that left about 90 police and government employees dead.

But authorities failed to produce two local governors sought by the hostage-takers as intermediaries — one of them had turned off his cellphone — and the key negotiator was prevented from flying to Beslan, in the southern republic of North Ossetia, until the third day of the crisis. By then it was too late.

"As soon as I landed at the airport, I could already hear the explosions," Aslambek Aslakhanov, the official negotiator and President Vladimir V. Putin's advisor on the separatist republic of Chechnya, said Thursday.

Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev purportedly claimed responsibility today for the school takeover and for the near-simultaneous explosions of two Russian jetliners in August.

The claim was impossible to confirm but appeared on a website that has carried Basayev statements in the past. Russian authorities had already blamed him for the school attack.

Critics accuse the government of lying about the crisis — saying during the first two days that there were 354 hostages at the school when there were actually more than 1,100, and insisting that the terrorists' demands were large and vague when some were limited and concrete.

"The main mistake the Kremlin made was that up to the last moment, no clear command came from the Kremlin as to what should be done to resolve the situation," said Georgy Satarov, a former advisor to ex-President Boris N. Yeltsin, who faced a similar crisis in 1995 when Chechen rebels seized 1,500 patients and staff at a hospital.

Survivors of the Beslan crisis said the hostage-takers appeared to want to negotiate but often had trouble making calls because phone service had been partially disrupted.

"We saw the director [of the school] being taken away by [the terrorists] because they wanted to call some officials. They told us later that they had tried to call the regional administration, and at some point even the president [of North Ossetia], but they couldn't get through to anyone," said Olga Vlaskina, a teacher.

Aslakhanov said the attackers named those with whom they wanted to deal. In addition to himself, they were Moscow pediatrician Leonid Roshal, North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov, Ingush President Murat Zyazikov and former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev.

Aushev entered the building on the second day and was able to secure the release of several mothers with young children, and Roshal and Aslakhanov negotiated with the attackers by phone, but Zyazikov and Dzasokhov never made contact — in fact, they were never seen or heard from publicly at all. Zyazikov, it was said later, was "sick."

Sergei Butin, an aide to parliamentary deputy Dmitry Rogozin, said his boss called Zyazikov on the first day of the crisis. "This is the entire conversation: 'Murat, are you away?' 'Yes.' 'How far away are you?' 'Very far away.' And he [Zyazikov] hung up and switched off his phone."

Aslakhanov, in one of the most complete accounts of the negotiations so far, told reporters Thursday that he had talked to the hostage-takers by phone from Moscow to arrange a meeting for Sept. 3 — the day a series of explosions and a gun battle left the hostage-takers and hundreds of their captives dead.

Aslakhanov said he had wanted to travel to Beslan earlier but was prevented from doing so by officials in Moscow.

Aslakhanov, a Chechen, talked to the hostage-takers three times from Moscow — though he said he dialed their number many times. He spoke mainly to a man who had a Caucasus accent but appeared not to speak the Chechen language.

"When I first talked to them, I said: 'Who are you? Where are you from? What are your goals? Are you ready for negotiations at all? If you issue an ultimatum which is impossible to meet, then what is there that we can negotiate with you about?'

"And they told me: 'We have more than 1,200 hostages in here, and 70% of them are children. And you are asking us whether we have something to talk about?' "

Aslakhanov said they were demanding a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, recognition of Chechnya's independence and the release of those arrested in connection with the attacks in Ingushetia. They said they would execute 15 children every hour if the troops were not withdrawn within two days.

"And I told them, 'Look, you are putting forth unthinkable conditions…. Do you realize what a withdrawal of troops really means? It is a huge military machine … it would take several months."

By the time he left Moscow, Aslakhanov had accumulated the names of more than 700 Russians — well-known politicians, writers, Olympic athletes — who were volunteering to enter the school as hostages in exchange for the release of children.

"We offered them anything they may have wanted — a corridor to any place, transport, money and drugs. We said that they could even take some of the hostages with them. We told them, 'Any country that will receive you, we will let you go to,' " Aslakhanov said.

The hostage-takers agreed to allow him to enter the school on Sept. 3 at 3 p.m. But the first explosion that day — by all accounts, touched off accidentally — occurred about 1 p.m.

"We were simply late," Aslakhanov said. "As soon as I arrived and got off the plane at the airport, there was already a gun battle going on."

The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said a third negotiator, oil company President Mikhail Gutseriyev, phoned the hostage-takers after the first explosion and unknown persons — possibly members of a citizens militia — began firing.

"What the hell are you doing?" Gutseriyev is quoted as yelling into the phone.

"You tricked us!" one of the captors shouted back.

Gutseriyev tried to convince him that the school was not being stormed. But as the hostage-takers returned fire and shot at fleeing hostages, Russian authorities apparently gave the order to storm. Five hours later, Gutseriyev and his interlocutor reportedly had their last conversation. "The blame is yours and the Kremlin's," the man said.

Said Aslakhanov: "When I was going there, I was in anticipation of this great joy over the fact that we would be setting the children free now. And when I got off the plane, I was simply at a loss. I thought to myself, how could this happen?"