"The murder of more than 250,000 peaceful civilians"

A Chechen Web site says the school siege is retribution for brutal acts by Russian forces.

Published September 7, 2004 2:39PM (EDT)

Details began to emerge Sunday as to what may have driven the school siege militants, as yet unidentified, to commit such a horrifying act against children. Witnesses reported that the hostage takers had attempted to justify their brutality by claiming it was an act of revenge for the killing by Russian forces of Chechen children. Margarita Komoyeva, a physics teacher released the day before the terrible climax in Beslan, said: "One of them told me: 'Russian soldiers are killing our children in Chechnya, so we are here to kill yours.'"

Those words were amplified Sunday on a Web site that is connected to Shamil Basayev, the most extreme Chechen commander, whom Russian officials think was the mastermind behind the Beslan atrocity. "However many children in that school were held hostage, however many of them will die (and have already died) ... it is incomparably less than the 42,000 Chechen children of school age who have been killed by Russian invaders," said the statement.

"Dead children, dead adults -- brutal murder of more than 250,000 Chechen peaceful civilians by the invaders -- all of it cries to heaven and demands retribution. And whoever these 'terrorists' in Beslan might be, their actions are the result of Putin's policies in the Caucasus in response to terrorism and crimes committed by the Kremlin's camarilla, which is still continuing to kill children, flood the Caucasus with blood and poison the world with its deadly bacilli of Russism." The Web site also quotes the Bible: "What measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you. (This is what Jesus said in the Bible -- Matthew 7:2, Mark 4:24, Luke 6:38)."

The Russian deputy prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, said Sunday night that 32 rebels took part in the Beslan operation, 30 of whom were killed by Russian forces. Three people have been detained in Beslan, suspected of aiding the attackers.

Russian television showed footage Sunday of an unshaven man, described by a prosecutor as one of the rebels. The state-controlled First Channel television showed him being escorted into a room in handcuffs by masked commandos. "This man directly took part in the attack; he is a member of the gang," said Fridinsky. The man, dressed in dirty black shirt, looked and spoke like a native of one of Russia's north Caucasus regions, which include Chechnya and North Ossetia. "I did not shoot. I swear by Allah I did not shoot," said the man, who looked scared. "I swear by Allah I want to live."

Russian security services said 10 of the rebels were from Arab countries, but did not provide evidence to back up the claim.

The fact that women also took part added another sign of the brutalization of the Chechen war in the past two years. According to Cerwyn Moore, a British academic who has been studying the emergence of female suicide bombers, there is a tradition of this sort of raid in Chechen history. "Hostage taking and blood vendettas are an old phenomenon."

Moore, a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, who visited Beslan last week during a study in Russia lasting several months and financed by the British Academy, said it was true that around 60 percent of the 15 or 20 confirmed suicide bombers had lost husbands. Others had lost close family members. "When you have a woman who's lost much of her identity because of her husband and family being killed, it's easier for her to be recruited," he said.

But he warned against the notion that every woman who took part in raids was intent on suicide. After the theater siege in Moscow two years ago, Russian survivors said some of the six women in the group had talked of their eagerness to get home to Chechnya. Some were pregnant. In that siege the Russians executed all the Chechens when they entered the building after pumping in a knock-out gas. This prevented the truth from being known.

It is possible some Chechen women in raids were seeking revenge for being raped by Russian troops. "There has been widespread use of war rape by contract soldiers. The subject is very delicate and hard to get facts on. But when you have Russian contract soldiers looting and raping -- and I believe it's the accepted norm -- you're going to have things happen later," he said.

Russian claims that women have been drugged by Chechen male fighters as a way of getting them to undertake suicide missions cannot be discounted, but are hard to prove, Moore said. A Chechen woman who was caught while acting suspiciously with a rucksack containing a bomb used the defense of being drugged at her trial. It is even harder to prove Russian claims that Chechen fighters raped Chechen women to reduce their self-esteem and encourage suicide, Moore said, although this too cannot be dismissed out of hand. A decade of war has brutalized almost everybody.

Whatever the motivation, the victimization of children in a hostage siege marks a new low in depravity. There were enough adults in the Beslan school on the first day of the term for the gunmen and women to have freed the children while keeping a large number of hostages as bargaining chips. Releasing all the children would also have made it easier to get food in for the remaining hostages, and themselves, if the gunmen had more manageable numbers. A day before the final act they freed 26 people, and could have freed more.

How did the gunmen get so much firepower and explosives? "Part of the weapons and ammunition was brought in and hidden in advance on the territory of the school -- we are carefully looking at this possibility," said Sergei Andreyev, head of the federal security service office in the republic of North Ossetia, where the attack occurred.

Several former hostages report that they were forced to dig up the floor at the school to unveil a cache of weapons underneath. This has led to suspicion that the weapons were hidden when the school was remodeled during the summer holidays. After the siege ended, the building was also found to have false-fronted walls, once covered in temporary stucco, that were opened by the gunmen to give themselves sheltered firing positions.

Although Fridinsky says the authorities are not connecting the hostage seizure and the school's remodeling, Lev Dzudayev, an aide to the North Ossetian president, said investigators are looking into reports that a Chechen firm may have had the contract to make alterations at the school.

By Jonathan Steele

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