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Beslan School Mourners Continue Search for Truth

The southern Russian town of Beslan is marking the one-year anniversary of the terrorist hostage-taking raid on its School No. 1. Some mothers of children who died in the ensuing military raid vented their anger at authorities they say failed to properly investigate the raid or hold officials responsible for letting it occur

It was a terrorist attack carried out with cruelty that made the world shiver. Over 330 people, half of them children, died when the three-day school siege, organized by dozens of gunmen, and ended in a chaotic shootout.

Only one alleged participant, 24-year-old Chechen Nurpashi Kulayev, was captured alive. He's been on trial in the regional capital of Vladikavkaz since May, and pled guilty to taking part in the attack, but he denies killing any hostages.

Attending every court preceding are some of the mothers whose children were killed in Beslan, hoping to find out who is responsible for so many deaths.

Prominent Chechen warlord, and the Kremlin's most wanted man, Shamil Basayev, has claimed responsibility for the siege. But mothers argue he is not the only one to blame.

Suzanna Dudieva lost her son in the siege. A year later, she heads the Beslan Mothers Committee, which accuses local officials of corruption and incompetence, and fights to bring them to justice.

Ms. Dudieva says, "From the very beginning, the whole world has been lied to, when they said that the number of hostages was smaller than it really was, when they said that they were conducting negotiations, that they made some agreements with terrorists: and they lied when they said that the kids were given water.

All these lies coming from officials played an evil role. It made the terrorists even angrier and they tortured our kids even more." As she walks through the school grounds, Suzanna makes shocking claims about the official investigation into the siege. "We found out that the second night after the tragedy, they picked up all the remains of the hostages and whatever was left in the gym and threw it into a waste dump. The investigation was irresponsible."

Although officials denied the allegation, many questions still remain. One of them is how the storming of the school building began.

Suzanna says her son was killed after a massive explosion rocked the gym, but still doesn't know who set the bomb off. "I don't know where the explosion was. You can see the holes here: my boy was killed. When my daughter came to, she tried to bring him to life, but she couldn't, nothing was helping. He started to choke and died in her arms."

So far, five local officials, including three policemen, were charged with criminal negligence connected to the school siege. But there's a person here in Beslan who is not under official investigation, but many people here believe she is also to blame for the tragedy.

For the former principal of Beslan's School Number 1, Lidya Tsalieva, September the 1st of 2004 was supposed to be the start of her 25th year on the job. She survived the three days of hell inside of the gym: and lost her hearing in the bloodshed that followed. But the worst of all, she says, is the burden of guilt local people have placed on her ever since.

Lidya Tsalieva says, "The mothers treated me like an enemy. One of them said that I knew that the terrorists were coming. Of course I didn't know that, my grandchildren were there too. If I knew, would I bring them there?"

She adds the gunmen were infuriated by the fact that right after the hostage taking, the authorities published incorrect figures about the number of hostages in the gym. "We watched the news on TV and they said that the school was taken over. And they said that 354 hostages were inside. So one of the gunmen told me - did you hear? 354! How many have you got there? I said I didn't know for sure, but definitely more than a thousand. Then he said - OK, we will keep the 354 alive and will kill the rest."

Throughout her entire time in the gym, Lydia says she was scared that Russia's elite Special Forces would storm the building. "I was afraid that many kids would die as a result. And they did. We hoped for negotiations, for something different… It didn't happen."

One year later, while life in the city looks like it's returned to normal, beneath the surface, people's pain, anger and love for their kids ignite their search for truth.