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The Beslan Massacre: `Accidental' bomb blast was trigger for

Independent on Sunday, The,  Sep 5, 2004  by Raymond Whitaker

Russian security forces admitted yesterday that the trigger for the confused and bloody end to the Beslan school siege was probably accidental, throwing the shortcomings of their response into sharper relief.

As emergency workers arrived by agreement with the terrorists to collect dead bodies which had been lying in the open since the beginning of the siege, two explosions went off inside the school gym.

Although security officials initially said that this was the planned start of a massacre of the hundreds of schoolchildren held inside the gymnasium, yesterday they conceded that the accidental detonation of the first bomb probably triggered the second, throwing the hostage- takers and Russian government forces alike into confusion.

The chaos was worsened by the presence of armed civilians among the crowds of relatives and onlookers who had gathered at the scene. Having been allowed to encroach too close to the school, the civilians opened fire as the standoff erupted into a gun-battle, making a confused situation even worse. Security forces found it impossible to distinguish between hostages, terrorists and self- appointed vigilantes. This confusion almost certainly increased the death toll.

The final failing, and one of the worst, was the lack of ambulances on standby at the scene. As dozens of children emerged, many in a serious condition, desperate parents carried them in their arms to private cars, and pushed other emergency vehicles out of the way to clear a path for ambulances when they belatedly arrived.

Clive Fairweather, who was second-in-command of 22 SAS Regiment when it brought a dramatic end to the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980, told The Independent on Sunday that the accidental explosions on Friday made things more difficult for the Russian special forces. "They were forced to mount a hasty response," he said. "This will always be far less successful than a planned set- piece, which is normally mounted in the dark, using the superiority of night sights.

"It is probable most of the children killed were already dead before the special forces blew their way in. It would appear clear however, that the inner and outer cordon comprising police and militia could have been far better co-ordinated, as some terrorists were able to break through and escape."

The failure to have enough ambulances on site, said Mr Fairweather, seemed to be "a glaring neglect" comparable to the Moscow theatre siege in 2002, when special forces pumped in untested nerve gas before storming the theatre. More than 120 hostages died along with 33 terrorists, mainly due to the lack of adequate preparations for emergency medical treatment.

"The starting point is that for so many hostages to emerge alive from a gymnasium rigged with explosives and a perimeter sewn with mines is a miracle in itself," said the former SAS man. "For comparison we need look no further than Dunblane eight years ago, where one man armed only with handguns achieved such a senseless slaughter of innocents in a gymnasium within minutes."

Mr Fairweather did not believe it was fair to make comparisons with the successful end to the Iranian embassy siege, when the 19 remaining hostages were rescued unharmed and five out of six terrorists were killed. "Twenty- four years on there are crucial differences - for example the sheer number of hostages and terrorists involved," he said.

"There is no comparison with what the British forces are used to and what the Russians have been facing in recent years. Ever since the Chechens starting using suicide bombers from the mid-1990s onwards, and more especially after 9/11, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush have been facing a very different and implacable enemy.

"The reach of the world's media has also altered over the years, enabling millions to watch, assess and judge the apparent chaos as it unfolds. The truth is that most military operations are chaotic, but thanks to the media, politicians and soldiers now have much less room for manoeuvre, and the outcome is heavily judged in terms of the number of body bags."

Concluding that "the dice were probably heavily loaded against the Russian Interior Ministry from the very start", Mr Fairweather said: "The terrorists always held the upper hand. What will be far more critical is the world's judgement on the terrorists' cold calculation to target so many children."

Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited
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