- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

MOSCOW — The death toll at Beslan in North Ossetia was sharply increased by a series of basic errors by Russian security forces, it was learned yesterday.

The elite unit of Russia’s special forces, the Alpha team, was so unprepared to tackle the Chechen terrorists inside the school that it did not join the rescue mission until more than 20 minutes after the hostages started escaping.

A failure by other troops to secure a perimeter around the area allowed armed civilians to rush into the school, impeding the effort to rescue fleeing parents and children. The presence of civilians also made it more difficult for the soldiers to identify the hostage-takers, allowing some to escape.

A lack of medical provision outside the school meant freed hostages were often unable to be treated quickly, further increasing casualties.

Lt. Col. Andrei Galagaev, who participated in the rescue, said: “When we needed the [Russian medical rescue service], they were simply not there.”

He said that, on hearing the explosions, townspeople stormed the flimsy cordon set up by the army and mingled with the special forces pressed up against the walls of the school.

“The civilians even had machine guns,” he said. “Special forces were saying that while the locals undoubtedly helped to take out the wounded, they also got in the way of the operation.

“According to the special forces, if the locals had not got involved, there would have been fewer victims and the militants wouldn’t have got through into the town.”

Earlier decisions by the Russian authorities also appear to have increased the problems. Freed hostages said the mood of the terrorists deteriorated on the second day of the siege, when it was revealed that President Vladimir Putin and Murat Ziazikov, the North Ossetian president, had refused to travel to the scene. From then on the terrorists forbade the hostages access to food and water.

Last night, there were still conflicting accounts about why the troops began their attack on the school gym, where most of the approximately 1,200 hostages were being held. Some reports indicated that the arrival of a truck just after 1 p.m. Friday to take away the bodies of male civilians had prompted some children to make a break for freedom by jumping from the windows. When the terrorists, who had agreed to the truck being brought in, shot at the children, troops in the vicinity returned fire and a battle ensued.

Other reports suggested that the hostage-takers had let off one or more of the explosives with which they had mined the gym, possibly by accident, and that the explosions prompted the troops to act.

Further accounts gave cause to believe that the rescue operation, which began at lunchtime on Friday, was uncoordinated, with troops unable to communicate with each other by radio and even the commanding officer not fully in charge of all those involved in the mission.

It emerged that the terrorists had meticulously prepared their attack, carrying out surveillance on the school, days or even weeks in advance, without hindrance.

Russian officials said the militants had disguised themselves as builders to smuggle themselves and explosive equipment into the school, which had undergone repairs over the summer.

Although road security in the region is meant to be tight to prevent the easy movement of militants from Chechnya into neighboring territories such as North Ossetia, there were reports that the willingness of soldiers to accept bribes meant that it was often easy for the rebels to move around.

British academics who specialize in counterterrorism were surprised by the mistakes made by the forces. Sandra Bell, the director of homeland security and resilience at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: “What we saw on Friday was mayhem. There certainly should have been a secure cordon around the area.”

Professor Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said: “There does seem to have been a large degree of confusion. The layout of the school is quite complicated. It seems that it was very difficult for the security forces to control all the possible exit points.”

He also criticized the lack of medical arrangements. “Even if they had not been planning any kind of military action, there should have been ambulance services available for the victims in the event that some violence did break out,” he said. “There were lessons that needed to be learned from the previous siege in Moscow that haven’t really been fully taken on board.”

John McAleese, one of the SAS team that stormed the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980, said of the denouement: “It was total chaos. Troops did not seem to have radios to communicate.”

Andy McNab, the former SAS soldier and author of “Bravo Two Zero,” agreed that mistakes had been made, but tempered his criticism. “There were fundamental mistakes made but, ultimately, with less than 30 percent casualties, you are looking at a success, because the political objective is to rescue the hostages. Whether it was the soldiers immediately in that vicinity who started to return fire or the ground commander who gave the order doesn’t really matter. You are looking at the point where all these people are potentially dead anyway. It’s a case of making the best of a bad situation.

“We tend to forget the potential of these people because we’ve lived through a previous era — the hijacks and sieges of the 1970s and 1980s, the Iranian Embassy siege — when it was like a video game in comparison. These people have mindsets that are different. There is so much commitment. There are women who are willing to kill themselves with explosives and kill children in the process,” Mr. McNab added.

Hugh McManners, a former Royal Marine commando and expert on special forces, said: “The FSB [Russian security service] had no plan. They were sitting there like puddings.”

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