Russian military, politicians handled Beslan siege poorly: inquiry head

Russian head of probe into Beslan hostage tragedy says government officials and military did not handle the situation well.

The Russian head of the public inquiry into the Beslan hostage tragedy, which claimed more than 300 lives, says government officials and military leaders handled the situation poorly.

Stanislav Kesayev spoke out in a newspaper interview in Moscow.

The siege began on Sept. 1, 2004, when 35 armed Chechen extremists herded about 1,000 children, teachers and parents into a school's gymnasium.

Beslan is in North Ossetia, which neighbours Chechnya, where militants are seeking independence from Russia.

The standoff ended three days later when Russian troops and special forces stormed the school after explosions went off in the gym. Most of the dead, half of them children, died when the gymnasium roof collapsed.

Most of the town's residents have refuted the official version of events – that troops needed to storm the gym after explosions were heard.

Witnesses say tanks and flame throwers used by the military caused the roof to cave in.

Kesayev did not go as far as to condemn the Russian military, saying evidence had been mislaid and that it would be hard to ascertain what caused the roof to fall down.

Kesayev said top officials have still not taken responsibility for the siege.

He said officials such as Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov should have headed the operation, and referred to a peaceful conclusion to a similar hostage-taking in Budyonnovsk. In June 1995, Chechen leader Shamil Basayev led rebels into a hospital in the southern Russian city and took 1,800 people hostage.

A top official was able to negotiate with Basayev. Most of the hostages survived while the rebels were allowed to head back to Chechnya.

In February, the Beslan Mothers' Committee travelled to Moscow, where they held a news conference calling for the resignation of Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia.

Dzasokhov has been criticized for doing nothing during the siege and for doing little to deal with rampant corruption, which many say allowed the militants to drive into Beslan unnoticed.

Dzasokhov announced on May 31 that he was stepping down early.