Grief turns to anger in dark Beslan

Posted in Russia , Other | 12-Sep-04 | Author: Carolynne Wheeler and Nick Pat| Source: Guardian

Ossetians comfort each other in the destroyed school gymnasium in Beslan.
The tally of the missing and the killers' identity are still in doubt as the mood turns to revenge

The Russian military yesterday extended its offer of a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of two separatist leaders who, the Kremlin claims, were behind the Beslan massacre. The Russian security service announced it would be willing to pay the bounty to any Chechen terrorist who turned informer.

Moscow has claimed militant commander Shamil Basayev and separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov ordered the raid in which at least 326 people, 150 of them children, died. The Russian foreign minister has said that Basayev had directly controlled the raid, being in touch with the hostage-takers while they were in the school.

Amid growing discrepancies between the Kremlin's version of what happened at Beslan and the accounts of survivors and locals, people in the North Ossetian town prepared to send their remaining children back to school tomorrow.

The Russian Red Cross reported that about 200 people were still missing. On Friday, 90 bodies remained unclaimed, including 53 children, in the main morgue in the regional capital of Vladikavkaz.

The gunmen were first reported to be largely Arab with one African in their ranks, later as Chechen and Ingush. The terrorists who surrounded the school numbered about 32. But there is still little evidence, either from survivors or investigators, to confirm statements by President Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that the attackers included several Arab Muslims.

A senior official of the FSB security service claimed last week it had precise information the attack had been ordered by 'Islamic circles in the Middle East', yet declined to specify from where. Putin took a call from the Saudi Arabian leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, last Sunday, during which the prince pledged to step up co-operation against terrorism.

Russia has long insisted that its conflict in Chechnya has become part of the world's Islamist militant movement, and is funded from abroad.

One senior FSB official said that it had 'precise data' that there were terrorist bases in the Pankisi Gorge - a remote part of neighbouring Georgia which Russia has repeatedly claimed is being used as a sanctuary by terrorists. Military tension between Russia and Georgia grew as the Russian military said it preserved the right to pre-emptively attack such bases anywhere in the world. The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was furious at Kremlin hints that access to Beslan may have been gained by militants through the Georgian border.

The prosecutor's office also denied yesterday persistent reports that the leader of the Beslan militants - dubbed 'the Colonel' - had escaped. Deputy to the general prosecutor, Vladimir Kolesnikov, said: 'He has received what he deserved and is in a refrigerator now.' He said his identity was known yet had to be 'legally' confirmed, and further information would be released this week.

Beslan's siege survivors are adamant their captors spoke in fluent Russian. 'Some of them looked Russian, they were very good-looking,' said Zara Medeyeva, 65, a grandmother who accompanied her two grandchildren and daughter-in-law to their first day back at school. 'It was impossible to say if they were Chechen, Ingush or someone else but nobody around here wears beards like that.'

Anonymous sources in the prosecutor-general's office have identified 11 hostage-takers to local media as Ingush and Chechen. The only militant taken alive is Nur-pashi Kuvayev, a Chechen.

Medeyeva said she heard the Colonel talking on his mobile phone the day before the end of the siege: 'We've done our part, what was demanded of us. What should we do next?' She remembers him saying. Then throwing his phone on the floor in anger, saying, 'For how long should I wait?'.

In Beslan yesterday, in a community where family ties run deep and distant cousins refer to themselves as brothers, all of the 239 dead who have been identified had been buried.

The burnt-out school gym, still carrying the stench of charred wood and flesh, has become a shrine. Mourners leave flowers, toys, food and drink, light a candle and pray, or trace a path through shattered classrooms.

A deep hole in a library storeroom betrays the place where the militants buried their explosives during summer renovations; the torn pages of a thousand books carpet the floor. Blood spatters line the walls, blood-stained dresses are tossed in corners, and dozens of shoes litter each room.

Aza Pukhayeva, who came from St Petersburg to search for her missing 12-year-old niece, Madina, wept as she stepped through the school's cafeteria, then grew agitated at the rancid smell. 'There's someone rotting under here! I can smell it!' she screamed, pulling feverishly at a chair buried under rubble. The discovery of rotting chicken did little to calm her.

While grief rules the day, rising anger takes hold at night. The normally bustling streets empty and men haunt street corners, talking quietly among themselves. Political leaders have implored with Ossetians not to respond with more violence, and military checkpoints have closed the border between Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Aslan Maskhadov, former Chechen president and separatist leader, has condemned the hostage-taking.

'If we want to preserve our national identity and to maintain the moral rightfulness of our struggle, we must decisively disassociate ourselves from those few whose reason has been clouded by revenge,' Maskhadov said.

Rumours swirl of attacks planned by North Ossetians against their regional neighbours and ethnic rivals, the Ingush, to come after the 40th day of mourning, an important ceremonial time in Orthodox Christianity. There are reports of gatherings at night of Ossetian men looking for Ingush in border towns.

'Our revenge is blood for blood. For these children, we have to take three times more blood than they did,' said a 45-year-old man clad in black who gave only his initials, MMM, after burying his four children. 'The people will make their decision after the funerals finish.'