Russia Admits It Lied About Belsan School Hostage Crisis

Washington Post

Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis

Public Was Misled On Scale of Siege

By Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page A01

MOSCOW, Sept. 5 — The Russian government admitted Sunday that it lied to its people about the scale of the hostage crisis that ended with more than 300 children, parents and teachers dead in southern Russia, making an extraordinary admission through state television after days of intense criticism from citizens.

As the bereaved families of Beslan began to lay their loved ones to rest Sunday, the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya network aired gripping, gruesome footage it had withheld from the public for days and said government officials had deliberately deceived the world about the number of hostages inside School No. 1.

“At such moments,” anchor Sergei Brilyov declared, “society needs the truth.”

The admission of an effort to minimize the magnitude of a hostage crisis that ensnared about 1,200 people, most of them children, marked a sharp turnabout for the government of President Vladimir Putin. In previous crises with mass fatalities, such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 and the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, officials covered up key facts as well, but afterward never acknowledged doing so.

“It doesn’t suit our president,” a Kremlin political consultant, Gleb Pavlovsky, said on the broadcast. “Lies, which really acted in the terrorists’ favor, did not suit him at all. Lies were weakening us and making the terrorists more violent.”

The broadcast included no apology and referred only to the most blatant misstatement by officials, the claim that only 354 hostages were inside the school. It did not acknowledge that the hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya or that the government continues to give conflicting information about whether any of the guerrillas remain at large, who they were and how many were killed.

Nor did it mention that many residents of Beslan have been outraged that the government now appears to be understating the death toll, which stood officially at 338 Sunday night, although nearly 200 people are still unaccounted for.

As for the hostage-takers, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said authoritatively on Saturday there were 26 of them, and all had been killed. On Sunday, he said there were 32 — 30 of them dead — and bragged about the capture of one “member of the gang” who was to be charged in court on Monday.

Putin made no public comment Sunday on the deadliest terrorist attack of his presidency, and no senior member of his government has commented publicly since the siege began at 9 a.m. Wednesday. A day after the president vowed in a televised address to take unspecified new security measures in response to the killing of “defenseless children,” the Kremlin was silent on what those steps would be.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said the deadly outcome of the school standoff had left Putin at a loss as to how to respond beyond the former KGB colonel’s instinct to strengthen police powers and centralize control over government institutions. “They don’t know what to do,” he said. “Vladimir Putin didn’t explain in detail what will be happening.”

Speaking before the Sunday night broadcast of the state television news program “Vesti,” Markov said it had been clear that the government had engaged in a clumsy coverup. “Everybody understands they are lying,” he said. “Everybody can do the math and know there were more than 1,000 people inside the school.”

The Kremlin sought to distance Putin from the deceptions through Sunday’s broadcast, in which the anchor chided “generals and the military and civilians” for failing to act “until the president gives them ideas of what to do.” Pavlovsky, the political consultant, said Putin had given Russia’s political system “a no-confidence vote” for its handling of the crisis.

Such statements could never be aired unless the Kremlin directly ordered them, according to political analysts here. Criticism of the president is never broadcast on state television, the continuing war in Chechnya is almost never mentioned, and even mild questioning of government policy is not allowed without approval from the Kremlin.

“Nothing happens on Rossiya television without the permission of the Kremlin,” commentator Andrei Piontkovsky said.

In Beslan, many residents have directed their anger not only at Putin but at the regional leader, Alexander Dzasokhov. In an effort to dispel those concerns, Dzasokhov made a televised visit Sunday to hospitalized children and apologized for failing to protect them adequately.

“I fully understand my responsibility,” said Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, the region near Chechnya where Beslan is located. “I want to beg your pardon for failing to protect children, teachers and parents.”

For many families in the town, there was not yet time for political recriminations as they searched for missing relatives and buried those who have been found. But people have grown increasingly despondent, acknowledging that many bodies were burned beyond recognition in an explosion that caused most of the casualties.

“We keep receiving complaints from relatives saying they haven’t found the bodies,” said Lev Dzugaev, an aide to Dzasokhov who gave the now-discredited total of hostages during the standoff.

At the Beslan House of Culture, which has been a gathering point for families throughout the crisis, volunteers taking down names of the missing said the figure stood at 190 as of Sunday afternoon. Many families have left not only names but snapshots, such as one of a little girl celebrating the new year wearing a snow princess dress and surrounded by boys in white rabbit costumes.

All along Beslan’s Pervomaiskaya (1st of May) Street, people were burying the dead Sunday. The tops of wooden caskets stood upright outside the large ornate gates of walled homes, signaling a house of mourning. Clusters of people, men and women walking separately, hundreds in all, moved up and down the long, potholed street. The wails of those who were grieving joined the cries of those farther down the street until, in some moments, it sounded as if all of Beslan was in tears.

At 103 Pervomaiskaya St., the body of 75-year-old Rimma Kusova, wrapped in plastic and covered by a thin orange blanket, lay on a table in the home she had shared with her husband and two grandchildren. Her husband, Timur, stood outside, inviting visitors to view the badly disfigured corpse.

Kusova had taken her grandson, Azamas, to school when both of them were seized. The boy escaped; she did not.

Timur Kusova, who is a retired factory worker, said he lost his only daughter to renal failure when she was 16 and his son, the boy’s father, to an injury he received as a soldier in the Soviet army that fought in Afghanistan. “I’m the only one now,” he said.

Across the street, at number 100, the relatives of 42-year-old Irma Zagoyeva had just come back from the morgue after spending more fruitless hours looking for her body. Zagoyeva had accompanied her 6-year-old son, Chermen, to his first day of school. He made it out. “He said his mother fell down and didn’t move,” Zagoyeva’s sister-in-law said. “That’s all he remembers.”

The body of Elza Guldayeva, 36, was brought home to number 52 on Saturday. Relatives were waiting Sunday afternoon outside a courtyard draped with vines for the body of her daughter, 12-year-old Olesya, to arrive. Guldayeva’s husband was at the hospital with the couple’s seriously injured second daughter, 11-year-old Alina.

“They killed our women and children,” said Felix Guldayeva, a cousin. “Our women and children.”

A large crowd stood outside 44 Pervomaiskaya St. Felix Totiyev, the family patriarch, stood with a cane beside two velvet-draped caskets for his two granddaughters, Lyuba, 10, and Anna, 8. Four more of his grandchildren were missing. From within the house, a constant moan of grief emerged.

At number 35, Batraz Tuganov lay dead under a silver and white sheet and dressed in a jacket. His head was still covered with a bandage. A single man, he was executed during the siege. His 72-year-old mother, Valentina, sat by the body, wordlessly accepting the hugs of the women who surrounded her.

Tuganov had driven two children and a mother to the school last Friday morning, relatives said. He decided to walk into the school courtyard with them.

At number 30, the funeral was over. Volodya Khodov, 10, who was shot in the chest, was buried Sunday afternoon, and a series of tents covering tables were set up on a side street for the mourners to drink and eat from. Volodya’s mother, Zifa, was one of 25 hostages released during the siege with an infant. But she was forced to leave behind Volodya and his younger brother.

Still, there was one piece of good news for this family to savor: Volodya’s younger brother survived.

Finn and correspondent Peter Baker reported from Beslan.

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