Tuesday, August 30, 2005

BESLAN, Russia — Russian authorities have done nothing to improve their ability to respond to terrorist threats in the year since their deeply flawed handling of the takeover of Beslan’s School No. 1, according to the man charged with investigating the disaster.

Stanislav Kesayev, deputy chairman of the regional parliament, is putting the final touches to his report as residents of Beslan prepared to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 1, 2004, school siege, which left 331 persons dead — most of them children — after Russian forces stormed the school.

Mr. Kesayev has interviewed scores of survivors, witnesses, emergency workers and security officials in an attempt to understand how armed militants from neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia managed to seize nearly 1,200 hostages at the school — and why the rescue effort proved so bloody.

His conclusions, due to be made public in mid-September, are disturbing.

“There have been no radical changes as a result of the Beslan events,” he said in an interview in his offices, where desks overflow with documents. “I wouldn’t want to see our security forces put to the test in another such crisis.”

Alexander Torshin, the head of the separate investigation into the response of federal officials to Beslan, has already indicated that authorities will not face heavy criticism, saying the military and security services “had to simultaneously resolve several difficult tasks” during the Beslan siege.

The federal probe “won’t shield anyone … but we do not intend to blame anyone irresponsibly. It will just be facts,” he told the Tribuna daily newspaper.

Just last week, a dozen Beslan mothers who lost children at the school staged a protest, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and Nikolai Patrushev, chief of the domestic security service FSB, had not been called to account for their actions during the crisis.

Authorities in Moscow, meanwhile, have attacked the credibility of Mr. Kesayev’s pending report, with the Russian prosecutor’s office declaring his probe illegal.

The parliament of North Ossetia, where Beslan in located, put Mr. Kesayev in charge of investigating the response of local officials just days after the massacre.

Even with his limited mandate, Mr. Kesayev said he has uncovered glaring examples of incompetence.

“There was a complete lack of professionalism and coordination between the many different forces responding to this crisis,” he said.

Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for the attack, has said the heavily armed hostage-takers made their way to the school from Chechnya, where Russian forces are battling a 10-year-old separatist movement heavily influenced by Islamic extremism.

“They traveled right under the noses of our security forces” to reach Beslan, Mr. Kesayev said. He and many others suspect the militants were able to bypass local checkpoints by bribing Russia’s notoriously corrupt roadside guards.

Mr. Kesayev’s report will also criticize local authorities for being hopelessly unprepared for the storming of the school and its aftermath.

Shortly after 1 p.m. on Sept. 3, two explosions boomed out from the school.

Within minutes, a firefight erupted between the hostage-takers and Russian forces surrounding the building. Fire engulfed the gymnasium, where many hostages were being held, and the gym roof collapsed as they tried to flee.

According to Mr. Kesayev, local police failed to cordon off the area around the school, allowing hundreds of distraught family members to rush to the scene. There was no medical- evacuation plan, forcing residents to take the wounded to hospitals in private cars.

And after the siege was over, authorities failed to secure the school for two days, leaving residents free to wander the ruins and contaminate evidence, making proper forensic work impossible.

The infighting and uncertainty in Beslan’s aftermath have only increased the misery for the town’s bereaved.

“We will never know the truth about who let the terrorists come here and how our children died,” said Ira Gibilova, whose daughter-in-law, 13-year-old granddaughter and 10-year-old grandson died in the school.

“The people who let this happen will never be punished,” she said.

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