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Beslan Remembers its Dead on First Anniversary of School Siege

Residents of the North Caucasus town of Beslan are preparing to remember their dead Thursday, Sept. 1, one year after rebel Chechen separatists seized a school and took more than 1,000 people hostage. The battle between government forces and the hostage-takers that ended the siege left more than 300 people dead, mostly school children. To this day, there are more questions than answers about what led to the carnage and how to make sure it won't happen again.

Anetta Gadiyeva, who spent 54 horrific hours in school number one's gym with her two young daughters, does not know exactly what she would do differently in order to save her daughter Alana's life. But she says in the year since her daughter's death, she often finds herself thinking back to those days, as if finding an answer would bring her daughter back.

But there is one thing this Beslan mother says she is sure of: The government of President Vladimir Putin did nothing to save her daughter, and she does not want any of the officials to take part in the memorial events.

Ms. Gadiyeva also blames the Russian authorities, including President Putin, for what she says is the failure to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for the hostage-taking, Russia's deadliest to date.

No one has been found guilty, she says, "not a single official." How is that possible, she asks? If things remain as they are, she says, then obviously no one has learned anything from this tragedy and no one is safe.

Susanna Dudiyeva is the director of the Beslan Mother's Committee, an advocacy group for survivors. She lost a 12-year-old son at the school. She says she doesn't believe the investigation being carried out by the Russian prosecutor's office will ever lead to the truth.

Ms. Dudiyeva says investigators have yet to determine how armed bandits were able to enter the school unhindered. Further, she says, the people who were supposed to be responsible for protecting and saving the hostages have not been held accountable. She also says no proof has been offered to back up investigators' claims that Russian special forces opened fire on the school only after the situation deteriorated amid still unexplained explosions.

Until such questions are answered and the perpetrators punished, Ms. Dudiyeva says the lost sons, daughters and other family members will remain as hostages. As she put it, "only the truth will set them free."

The Beslan Mothers' call for justice is not likely to be answered in the near future. Just last week, Alexander Torshin, the Russian legislator who heads the parliamentary probe into the Beslan hostage taking, said the commission will be unable to finish its report by the anniversary.

In its defense, the Russian government has said no one could have prepared adequately for an event such as the Beslan school seizure. However, President Putin did fire the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, for failing to detect and prevent the terrorist attack at Beslan. North Ossetia's Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev resigned.

Russian government officials have also claimed that an al-Qaida agent, Abu Omar as-Seif, financed the attack. Critics dispute that claim, saying the government most likely finds it politically expedient to strengthen ties to the global war against terrorism, rather than consider that its own policies in Chechnya could be partially to blame.

Over the past year, Russian officials have repeatedly blamed the rebel Chechen separatists for the deaths in Belsan.

Russia has been at war with separatists in Chechnya for more than a decade and blames Chechen militants for many terrorist acts, including the Beslan hostage taking.

Masha Lipman is one of Moscow's leading political analysts on Chechnya. She says the Kremlin has still not drawn any conclusions from the bungled hostage taking at Moscow's Dubrovka theater two years before Beslan. More than 120 hostages died in the Dubrovka theater, many from poison gas the authorities used to overwhelm the hostage-takers.

Ms. Lipman tells VOA Russian authorities remain unaccountable for the Dubrovka incident.

"Nobody was punished for that and, in fact, several people were rewarded for the operation," she said. "That, and we still do not know who was responsible for the deaths of those people. Who was the person who failed to organize a rescue operation that was, I think, [a] truly outrageous example of how human lives in Russia are really worthless to the Russian government. This terrible event, this terrible attack went uninvestigated and no lessons were drawn."

And yet, Ms. Lipman says President Putin has paid no political price for the failures, both at the Dubrovka theater and the Beslan school. She says his policy of never negotiating with terrorists has a broad public support, even though most Russians say in polls they do not believe the use of force in Chechnya will resolve the crisis.

As the Beslan anniversary nears, it was reported on the rebel Chechen website (Kavkaz Web) that Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, has become the second most powerful figure in the rebel government. The website said Basayev was appointed first deputy prime minister by the Muslim cleric who replaced Aslan Maskhadov, the late Chechen president killed by pro-Moscow forces in March.

Analysts say Basayev's appointment could signal further radicalization of the Chechen separatists' agenda.

Back in Beslan, workers are putting the final touches on a seven-meter bronze memorial to the victims of last year's massacre. Erected in a cemetery, the statue depicts three grieving mothers beneath a group of winged children ascending to heaven.

Moscow, which has experienced a series of deadly terror attacks in recent years, will hold rallies for the victims of Beslan and stage memorial concerts.

In schools across Russia, security is being tightened for the start of a new school year. Nearly two-thirds of all state schools in Russia have reportedly been equipped with new alarm systems, in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies.

The only suspected Beslan hostage-taker to survive, Nurpasha Kulayev, is currently on trial. Russia's most-wanted man, Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for both the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage seizures, remains at large.