- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

MOSCOW — The militants who raided a school in southern Russia last week were led by a man dubbed the Colonel, who enforced obedience by killing three fellow attackers — two by detonating the explosives they had strapped to their bodies.

Two days later, the terrorists were moving the explosives they rigged around the gym where hundreds of hostages were held, and a bomb went off accidentally. That began the spiral of panic that led to the bloody conclusion of the standoff, in which more than 320 people were killed.

Those details were among several disclosed by Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov yesterday, in the government’s first formal attempt to account for the calamity last week.

Mr. Ustinov, who met with President Vladimir Putin, said 326 hostages had been killed and 727 wounded in the attack, which ended Friday in a wave of explosions and gunfire as hostages tried to flee, and special forces and armed civilians tried to help them. He said 210 of the bodies had been identified, and forensic workers also were trying to identify 32 body fragments. The death toll could rise, Mr. Ustinov said.

Various officials previously had leaked some details of the investigation, but the government had not set out its own version of events until now.

The more than 30 attackers, including two women, had gathered in a forest early on the morning of Sept. 1 and arrived at School No. 1 in Beslan in the republic of North Ossetia in a military-type truck and two jeeps, packed with weapons and ammunition, Mr. Ustinov said.

They herded people who had gathered to mark the first day of school into the gym. Some of the terrorists objected to seizing a school, and their leader, who went by the name Colonel, shot one of them. He said he would do the same to any other terrorists or hostages who did not show “unconditional obedience.”

Later that day, he detonated the explosives worn by two female attackers, killing them, to enforce the lesson, Mr. Ustinov said.

One of the terrorists was stationed with his foot on a button that would set off the explosives, Mr. Ustinov said. If he lifted his foot, the bombs strung up around the school gymnasium would detonate, he said.

On Friday, the attackers decided for unknown reasons to reposition the explosives, and apparently set off one bomb by mistake, Mr. Ustinov said. That sparked panic, as hostages tried to flee, and the attackers opened fire.

That led Russian forces to storm the building.

Mr. Ustinov said his information was based on interviews with witnesses and the one purported attacker who has been confirmed detained, identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev. Officials think the attack was orchestrated by militants from breakaway Chechnya.

Mr. Ustinov’s deputy, Sergei Fridinsky, said the bodies of 12 of the attackers had been identified, and that some of them had taken part in a June attack in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia that targeted police and killed 88 persons.

About 1,200 hostages had been taken at the school, Mr. Ustinov said. It was the first official acknowledgment that the number of hostages had been so high. The government initially said about 350 people had been seized, and over the weekend a regional official said the number had been 1,181.

On Tuesday, Russians got a horrifying glimpse of the drama from video footage taped by the militants who captured the school. The images, aired on a Russian television station, showed the heavily armed, hooded assailants amid the crowd of women, children and men in the school.

The NTV station said the pictures — which showed hundreds of people crowded into the gym beneath a string of explosives dangling from a basketball hoop — were recorded by the assailants.

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