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Flame-throwers used at Beslan siege

Independent on Sunday, The,  Oct 24, 2004  by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

The Russian military used tanks, flame-throwers and rocket- propelled grenades to wipe out pro-Chechen militants during last month's Beslan school siege while some of the hostages - many of them children - may still have been cowering inside, a member of Russia's parliamentary inquiry into the tragedy has claimed.

Arkady Baskaev, a deputy in Russia's parliament, says he wants to know whether the use of such extreme force was legal and whether hostages were killed as a result. Three hundred and forty-four people, more than half of them children, died as a result of the mayhem that unfolded on 3 September. Mr Baskaev's damning comments came as the army commander in charge of operations on the day, Lieutenant General Viktor Sobolev, commander of the 58th army, made a series of damaging admissions about the day's events.

Gen Sobolev admitted that tanks and armoured personnel carriers had opened fire on the school, that the elite Spetznaz troops trained to storm the school were training in another town when the firing started and arrived almost an hour later, and that it took two hours to clear the "hot zone" of local militia who allegedly opened fire on the school in the first place.

Defence and Interior Ministry troops had to cope on their own until the Spetznaz arrived. Separately Colonel Bakhtiar Nabiev, head of the 58th army's engineering unit, admitted that there was not one sapper among the Russian special forces who stormed the school initially despite the fact that everyone knew that the entrances to the school gym had been extensively mined. Evacuating children and adults trapped inside therefore took much longer.

Gen Sobolev's account of the day was not, however, a straightforward mea culpa. Published in Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the army's official newspaper, it was clearly an attempt to shift the blame for what happened on to the FSB security service and the Russian Interior Ministry who also took part in the operation. Gen Sobolev said that the FSB ordered tanks and armoured personnel carriers to be used and that it was the FSB's elite Spetznaz troops who were training in the neighbouring town of Vladikavkaz when the firing started and therefore arrived far too late.

The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Gen Sobolev's buck- passing account was certain to have been sanctioned by Sergey Ivanov, Russia's powerful Defence Minister.

The parliamentary inquiry investigating the day's events has made it clear that it will cross-examine Mr Ivanov and the paper claimed that he was keen to get in his counter-attack beforehand.

Nezavisimaya said the authorities had a lot of questions to answer. "How is it possible that at the most crucial moment when the explosions detonated in the gym that a Spetznaz unit trained for storms and other extraordinary situations wasn't around? Why were they training so far from Beslan? And why weren't there any so- called duty units which are supposed to be on hand in such situations?"

The paper expressed incredulity about the lack of sappers too. "From the very first moment all the TV and radio stations announced that the school had been mined. Why did the special forces, who had been training to free the hostages for the preceding two and a half days, include no sappers?"

Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst, has gone even further. Writing in the liberal Novaya Gazeta he has accused the Russian Air Force of firing air-to-surface missiles at the school, a claim that the authorities flatly deny.

At least one MI-24 gunship was hovering over the school during the firefight and was thought to be directing special forces on the ground but Mr Felgenhauer claims its presence was more sinister.

"An armoured helicopter would never have made it there so quickly unless previously briefed and given time to prepare for the mission. According to the locals, the MI-24 was not just hovering. It was bombing." He also cites eyewitness testimony saying that special forces used flame-throwers and rocket-propelled grenades. "There is more and more evidence that it was not a hostage rescue operation... but an army operation aimed at wiping out the terrorists."

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