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article imageSeptember 1 marks a dark day in Russian history

By Karen Graham     Aug 30, 2014 in World
Beslan - Monday marks the 10th anniversary of one of Russia's darkest events in recent history. On September 1, 2004, a group of 32 Chechen militants broke into a school in Beslan, taking 1,100 adults and children hostage, ending in a bloody massacre.
It was the first day of school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. At 9 a.m. local time, the "ringing of the bell" celebration starting the first day of the school term began. It also signaled the beginning of a three-day hostage crisis that ended in a horrific number of deaths.
The ringing bell was the signal for 32 armed Chechen militants, two of them purported to be women, to storm School No. 1. There were more than 1,100 adults and children in attendance that fateful morning, and they all were taken hostage. Some of the militants wore suicide belts, and they strapped bombs to basketball goalposts in the gymnasium.
The hostage-takers were members of the Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion, sent by the Chechen separatist warlord Shamil Basayev. The group had been hiding out in a forest encampment outside the village of Psedakh in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, east of North Ossetia.
About 10 minutes after 9 a.m. that morning, they arrived in Beslan in a GAZelle police van and a GAZ-66 military truck. Dressed in green military camouflage and wearing black balaclava masks, many people thought they were members of the Russian Special Forces on a practice security drill. However, once the militants started shooting their rifles into the air and herding people inside the school's gymnasium, events went downhill quickly.
During the ensuing chaos, around 50 people were able to escape and rush to warn local authorities of what had happened. In the meantime, a shootout was going on between armed police who were nearby and the militants rushing to get their hostages inside, and several people were killed and many were wounded.
Chechen demands and a silent media response
Throughout the day, Kremlin officials were in discussions that led to the decision that absolutely no information was to be released on the militants demands. It is said by many people that this decision was based on what the Putin administration had learned from the hostage crisis at the Moscow Musical Theatre “Nordost” in 2002.
In the 2002 hostage crisis, relatives of the hostages had demonstrated for an end to the Chechen War, and their demonstration was met with an outpouring of popular support. Vladimir Putin didn't want a repeat of this show of popular sentiment to raise its head again, so the demands were kept from the public, and the official statement given the press said: "all of its efforts to make contact with the terrorists had been ignored."
Actually, there were demands made. Chechen separatist warlord Shamil Basayev, who was considered the undisputed leader of the Chechen insurgency did make some demands.
He demanded two things. First, he wanted the immediate withdrawal of Russian Federation troops from Chechnya, and second, that the United Nations recognize the independence of Chechnya.
Day two of the hostage crisis and secret plans to storm the school
Of course, the public heard that there were negotiations in place with the hostage-takers, and that every effort would be made to avoid an armed assault on the school. Russia had even gone so far as to ask that the United Nations convene a special meeting of the Security Council to address the crisis. President George W. Bush even made a statement offering "support in any form" to Russia.
But all the while this rhetoric was being fed to the news media, behind the scenes, others were planning a different end to the hostage crisis. It was on this second day that Vladimir Putin made his first public statement on the Beslan school hostage crisis. He said, "Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task."
Beslan school hostage crisis
Beslan school hostage crisis
It was discovered later, after the bloody end of the hostage crisis, that not only had the militants made demands, but they had given a note and a video tape to Ruslan Aushev, a well-respected ex-President of Ingushetia and retired Soviet Army general. He had been allowed to enter the school on Day 2 of the crisis and escort out 15 nursing mothers and 15 babies.
Being deprived of food and water made the children fatigued, and crying became a persistent result, making the militants edgy and angry. Threats of shooting the children if they didn't stop crying made parents sick with anguish, and soon tensions were almost palpable inside the gymnasium. Militants fired their weapons at security forces outside the school off-and-on all during the night.
The final day
Around 1 p.m. the afternoon of the third day, local paramedics were given permission to remove the 20 dead bodies littering the outside of the school grounds. They had been lying there for two days. Three minutes later, as the paramedics were approaching the school, explosions were heard from inside the school. Two hand grenades had been set off by the militants.
Militants then opened fire on the paramedics, killing two. About this time, another explosion was heard and the roof of the gymnasium caught fire. Soon, burning rafters and part of the roof fell on the people below, and eventually the whole roof collapsed on the hostages, turning the gymnasium into a burning inferno. Over 160 of the total number of people killed in the hostage crisis died in the fire. Security forces then stormed the school, and although many adults and children escaped, 334 people were killed, including 186 children, and more than 700 people were wounded.
The aftermath of the hostage crisis
Of the 32 Chechen militants involved in the Beslan school hostage crisis, 31 died and one, 24-year-old Nur-Pashi Kulayev from Chechnya, was captured alive. He is now serving a life-sentence in a prison somewhere in the Russian Federation.
There is a new school in Beslan, built to replace School No. 1, which was closed down after the hostage crisis. The new school on Kominterna Street is across from where the old one was located and it has a different name. Officials decided to not give it a number after the events of Sept. 1, 2004. It's just called "the school on Kominterna Street."
There is also a cemetery called The City of Angels," so named because one youngster, a survivor of the hostage crisis says, "It's because all the children, all the people buried here were angels. They were all beautiful and kind. But it was their destiny." The wooden crosses that marked the neat rows of graves in 2004 have been replaced with copper-colored marble headstones.
More about proChechen gunmen, Beslan School, Russian federation, school seige, Massacre
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