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Beslan Marks One-Year Anniversary of School Massacre

People in the North Ossitan town of Belsan Thursday began three days of mourning to mark a year since Chechen gunmen seized a local school. More than 300 people - mostly children - died in a chaotic battle between security forces and the gunmen that ended the siege.

Bells tolled on the exact moment a year ago when Chechen gunmen, demanding an end to the war in Chechnya, entered School Number One in Beslan and took more than 1,000 people hostage. Families and friends of those killed and injured, as well as many of the hostages who survived gathered at the gutted gymnasium of the old school with flowers and lit candles in their hands.

They had to pass through metal detectors before making their way into the ruins of the gymnasium, the walls of which stand as a reminder of the massacre that took place there on September 1, 2004.

It was in the gym that some 30 masked Chechen gunmen set mines and booby-traps just centimeters away from the hostages, whom they denied food and water. The hostage-taking came to an end three days later amid a series of explosions, a firefight and fire.

The walls of the gym are covered with photos of the victims - nearly 200 of them children - and underneath are burning candles, stuffed animals and piles of red carnations - the traditional flower of mourning in Russia. The streets outside the school were lined with police.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, declared unwelcome by many in Beslan, instead visited students and teachers in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar.

In remarks broadcast on Russian television, President Putin asks the group to observe a minute of silence for all those who he said suffered at the hands of terrorists in Beslan. "Let us not speak useless words," he said.

Many families of the Beslan victims say there are still more questions than answers about how such a tragedy could happen in the first place. Others accuse the Russian government, which has yet to disclose findings of the official investigation, of covering up a bungled Russian rescue operation and shielding high-level officials from blame.

Chief among the critics is the Beslan Mothers Committee, a local advocacy group, which has been demanding a meeting with President Putin for the past year. That request was addressed late last week, with Kremlin officials saying President Putin would meet the mothers this Friday.

Many of the women say the timing is suspect, given the anniversary, and that they would much prefer to spend the time beside their children's graves. But others say they plan to go to Moscow in the hopes of getting some answers.