Russians begin burying victims of school hostage siege
BESLAN, Russia – Mothers wailed over the coffins of their children Sunday and dozens of townsmen dug graves in a football field-size piece of scrubland next to the cemetery. Funeral processions snaked through the streets of this grief-stricken town as Russians began to bury victims of the terror attack on a school that left more than 350 people dead.
Frantic relatives also were still searching for 180 people still unaccounted for – many of them children – two days after the bloody climax of the hostage crisis that left few families untouched in this tight-knit, mostly industrial town of 30,000.
Weeping mourners placed flowers and wreaths at the graves, including one where two sisters Alina, 12 and Ira Tetova, 13 – were laid to rest together. Relatives walked toward the cemetery bearing portraits of the dark-haired girls and simple wooden planks – temporary grave markers – bearing their names and the dates framing their short lives.
Both listed the date of death as Sept. 3, 2004, the day the hostage seizure – the third deadly terrorist attack to strike Russia in just over a week – ended in a bloody wave of explosions and gunfire as commandos stormed the school and hostages fled after powerful blasts shook the building.
Wails of mourning women echoed from courtyards where families made ritual meals, while surveyors used wooden planks and string to mark new graves being dug in a field near the town’s cemetery.
“When a person goes to the cemetery for a burial, it’s sad, but nothing like this – when you dig graves for your children,” volunteer gravedigger Anzor Kudziyev, 25, said. “The grief is for all of our people.”
Officials in the southern North Ossetia region scrambled to identify and confirm the number of people killed amid conflicting reports, apparently confused in part because of the large number of body fragments collected at the school.
North Ossetia’s health minister Alexander Soplevenko said at least 340 people were dead, while his deputy Taimuraz Revazov said 324 fatalities were confirmed. The Interfax news agency quoted regional government spokesman Lev Dzugayev as saying the toll stood at 338, but he later said in televised comments that the number was 335.
The regional health ministry said 180 people were missing after the three-day hostage crisis, which began when armed attackers raided School No. 1 on Sept.1, the first day of classes, seizing students, teachers and parents attending opening-day ceremonies.
ITAR-Tass later cited a Beslan city official as saying that a list of children unaccounted for included 176 names. Russian media speculated that some of the missing could be among the wounded brought to hospitals in North Ossetia, unconscious or too deep in shock – or too young – to identify themselves.
The health ministry said 207 of the dead had been identified, but some bodies were charred beyond recognition. Questions also remained about the number and identity of the hostage-takers – heavily armed and explosive-laden men and women reportedly demanding independence for the nearby republic of Chechnya.
More than 700 people needed medical help after the crisis, and Interfax quoted Dzugayev as saying that as of late evening 386 remained hospitalized in the region, including 184 children. Several badly wounded victims have been taken to Moscow hospitals.
Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said Sunday that according to the latest information, 32 militants had been involved and the bodies of 30 of them had been found, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
But Interfax also reported that three suspects were detained in Beslan on Saturday, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, and Channel One showed footage of one alleged attacker in the hands of law enforcement officers.
North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev, meanwhile, offered his resignation, said Alexander Andreyev of the southern regional branch of the Russian Interior Ministry.
“After what happened in Beslan, I don’t have the right to occupy this post as an officer and as a man,” ITAR-Tass quoted Dzantiyev as saying. Channel One quoted a regional spokesman as saying it had not yet been accepted.
Muradi Nartikoyev, a town elder who was officiating at mourning ceremonies, said the whole regional government should step down. “If they had fulfilled their duty, this would not have been possible,” he said.