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Critics Detail Missteps in School Crisis
Delays and problems in communication were factors in the
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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
"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,' "
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
"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?"