The Truth About Beslan

 Marina Litvinovich


A report entitled Beslan: The Hostages’ Truth compiled by Yuriy Savelev, a State Duma deputy and member of the parliamentary commission investigating the terrorist attack, was published today on the Pravda Beslana (Beslan’s Truth) web site This report, the “special opinion” which other investigators did not agree with, is practically the only voice of reason on the parliamentary commission, as the official version of events directly contradicts not only the evidence of the hostages and witnesses, but even the laws of physics and explosives.


Yuriy Petrovich Savelev is a doctor of technical sciences, a highly qualified expert on the physics of combustion and explosions, a professor and former rector of St Petersburg’s Institute of Military Mechanics, the only specialist of his kind on the commission.


In May-June this year Savelev familiarised other members of the parliamentary commission and a range of experts with his report. Making practically no substantial objections, they described his conclusions as “deliberate falsification of the data” and “speculation”. The chairman of the commission, A. Torshin, accused Savelev of  “playing political games”. The reaction to the report can be easily explained: Savelev not only completely destroys the official version of the terrorist attack in Beslan (the version of the Prosecutor’s Office which was repeated by A. Torshin in his December 2005 report), but also proves the terrible truth: the hostages died not through the fault of the terrorists, but through the fault of the HQ’s actions. Not simply the actions but the criminal order given by one of the HQ’s FSB generals.


Yuriy Savelev’s report is voluminous, packed with evidence, calculations, formulas and photographic proof. The author pays a lot of attention to the testimonies of the surviving hostages, witnesses and eyewitnesses. These testimonies were given in open court during the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev at the Supreme Court of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. Stenographic records of the trial, which were published quickly on the web site, allowed any interested party to delve into the circumstances of events in Beslan. The details repeated by the former hostages provided material to understand the events of 1-3 September 2004 and especially the events that set in motion the storming of the school on 3 September. Moreover, Savelev based his report on the large archive of photographic and video material from the scene of the tragedy which was put together with the help of reporters who worked in Beslan. It is not easy to paraphrase the report either in terms of its scope or its base of scientific evidence, so I will restrict myself in this article to just the main conclusions.


The first part of the report is devoted to the circumstances surrounding the explosions in the school sports hall, which were heard after 13.00 on 3 September 2004 and after which the “enforced storming” began. The official version runs: “The unidentified terrorists activated explosive devices rigged up in the school sports hall.” The investigation proceeded from this version, conducting expert analyses in explosives and fires. Savelev pays a great deal of attention in his report to criticism of these analyses. Taking as a basis the repeated evidence of the hostages, the investigation of the nature and timing of the destruction in the sports hall, the used casings from single-shot weapons, which were found by local residents and handed in to the prosecutor’s office, and photographic records and using formulas to calculate the strength of the explosions, the author of the report draws his conclusions. The first explosion in the sports hall, packed with weak hostages, was the result of a shot from an RPO-A (rocket-propelled infantry flame-thrower with a thermobaric action, in other words a Shmel flame-thrower) from the five-storey House No 37 in School Lane. The shot was fired at 13.03 into the northeast corner of the attic space of the sports hall, which adjoins the gym. As the FSB did not reply to the official enquiry of the parliamentary commission, the author admits that in this case an RPO-A might not have been used, but a TBG-7V grenade (RPG-7V1 grenade thrower), RShG-2 (rocket-propelled assault grenade) or an MPO-A (although at that time this type of weapon might not yet have been in the armoury of the Russian Federation FSB’s special centre). As the shot was made by a thermobaric grenade with a simplified charge, then it is likely that a weapon of the types mentioned with similar specifications was used.


The second explosion in the sports hall, which was heard 22 seconds later, was caused by a high explosive splinter grenade, with an equivalent of 6.1 kg of TNT, fired from an RShG-1 grenade thrower in the five-storey House No 41 in School Lane. The shot destroyed the wall beneath the northern window’s sill, close to the western wall of the sports hall.


It is important to note that a significant number of the explosive devices rigged up by the fighters in the sports hall did not explode, while some of them did explode as a result of the raging fire. A large number of the hostages in the sports hall died precisely as a result of the first two explosions. Some of the survivors managed to run out of the sports hall, while after the explosions others were taken by the fighters into the school’s canteen, assembly hall and southern wing. The fighters moved the people because a fire had started in the sports hall and had taken hold very quickly. The fire in the sports hall started as a result of the first shot, practically at 13.05, as the school’s attic area, ceiling rafters and lagging had begun to burn where the thermobaric grenade fell. The burning rafters and lagging fell onto the wounded, but still living, hostages. The order of the head of the operational HQ, FSB Maj-Gen V.A. Andreyev, to extinguish the fire came at 15.10, the first water at 15.28, that is, two and a half hours after the start of the fire. In this time all the hostages who remained in the sports hall were burnt. Helpless and wounded, they were burnt alive.


A better fate did not await those who were moved from the sports hall to other parts of the school. All parts of the school except for the sports hall came under fire from outside from Shmel flame throwers, RPG-26 and RShG-2 grenade throwers, other weapons and also from tanks. Yuriy Savelev has calculated from the investigation’s official documents and forensic reports that approximately 300 to 310 hostages were taken from the sports hall to other parts of the school and that approximately 106 to 110 of them died.


The report contains many other convincing expositions and conclusions. I have mentioned only the basic ones. The main conclusion is: the storming of the school in Beslan was engineered (begun) by the use of weapons by the Russian special services, specifically the team from the operational HQ. However, the storming was presented to us as “enforced”, that is, begun after “the fighters blew up the sports hall”. Savelev proves in his report that this is not true.


Why did events turn out this way? What was the logic and what were the circumstances that made the HQ fire several times into the sports hall and then begin the assault? I have been asking myself this question for a long time. This is my theory. First, it has to be taken into account that there were in fact two “operational headquarters”: one, termed by convention “the power-wielding structures or heavies”, which included the federal FSB, and the other “civilian”, which included the leaders of the republic, deputies, and also regional, Ossetian heavies of a lower rank. From 1 September the “heavies” HQ was preparing the assault, while the “civilian” HQ was looking for a peaceful resolution of the situation through negotiations. In many ways the “heavies” restricted the actions of the “civilians” (in particular in their attempts to negotiate with the fighters) and also took pains to assure everyone that “there will be no storming”.


From the very beginning the local population and relatives of the hostages in the school were very afraid of an assault by force. Representatives of the “civilian HQ” went out to meet people and assure them that “there will be no storming”. But they were not really believed: the degree of mistrust of officialdom was outstripped by the lies of the HQ and mass media (especially the federal TV channels) about the number of hostages – all three days it was reported that there were 354 of them, although by the afternoon of 1 September the number was known to be “more than 1,000” (members of the HQ - the Russian Federation president’s deputy press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, and the deputy director of the “Vesti”(“News”) department for information and the press, Pyotr Vasilyev - “filtered” the information for the media). Ossetian men literally formed a living ring around the school in order to prevent an attack by the military. They were armed with whatever they could find, even with rare weapons from the Second World War.


But while the “civilian” HQ was thinking about ways of holding negotiations, the “heavies” were preparing to storm the school. It should be noted that the “civilian” HQ even achieved some success in their work – agreement was reached on the arrival of Maskhadov whom they promised to let into the school. He was guaranteed a corridor and airfield. An hour after these agreements were reached, the storm of the school began.


The “heavies” HQ faced a “difficult” task: how can they storm the school if local residents will see this straightaway and get in the way of the work of the special units? The decision was taken then: 1. to engineer the assault; 2. to make it look as though the fighters themselves blew up the sports hall; 3. to this end to fire several times into the sports hall (into the attic, under the hall’s window and into the window); 4. to begin the assault with special forces; 5. to distract the attention of the fighters before firing into the sports hall (it had been agreed that forces from the Emergencies Ministry would collect bodies thrown out of the school window). This was the plan. This was the chronology: the Emergencies Ministry drives up to collect the bodies, at 13.03 explosions are heard in the sports hall, special forces begin “the enforced storming”. The local population does not get in the way of the troops and themselves rush to drag the hostages out of the sports hall.


I am sure that only a few people knew the details of this operation. I am sure that this operation was devised by the FSB. Most likely the generals knew about this operation – at that time they were deputy FSB directors V. Pronichev, V. Anisimov and A. Tikhonov who were in Beslan and leading the “heavies” HQ. And of course the operation was agreed with President Putin, perhaps without the details, but in principle: “A storming and no negotiations”. A source in the presidential administration reported that President Putin took the decision in principle to storm the Beslan school at roughly midday on 1 September 2004. History does not forget such decisions.


The author is the editor-in-chief of the Pravda Beslana web site.