Russia’s Use of Thermobaric Rockets Worsened the 2004 Beslan Siege
A European court blames heavy weapons for exacerbating casualties among civilians held hostage by Chechen terrorists
On April 13, 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found Russian forces “failed” to protect civilian lives in their handling of the hostage-taking crisis in Beslan in 2004 that ended in a fiery massacre.
It might seem strange that a tragedy that occurred more than a decade ago in North Ossetia was airing in a Western European courtroom, and that the security forces in particular were the ones on trial, not the mostly Chechen and Ingush perpetrators.
There is no debating that the terrorists, who deliberately chose to target children, hold primary responsibility for the monstrous events that occurred in September 2004. Furthermore, many Russian citizens and soldiers acted with remarkable courage and honor in the face of the unfolding tragedy.
However, the parents who filed suit against the Russian government felt the security forces did not live up to their responsibility to protect their loved ones—claiming, among other things, that “flamethrower” rockets fired into a gym packed full of hundreds of children may have triggered the bloodbath.
On Sept. 1, 2004, more than 800 students flocked to Beslan School Number One in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia. It was their first day of the school year, celebrated as “Knowledge Day” in Russia. Many parents were accompanying their children to school for the event. Beslan, a town of 35,000, is located near the border with the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia—and the children attending school would soon be made to suffer for events that took place before most of them were born.
In 1992, the Christian Ossetians and Muslim Ingush—an ethnic group with close ties to the Chechens—fought a brief war over the region of East Prigorodny. Joseph Stalin had earlier deported the Ingush from the area and resettled it with Ossetians. In the 1992 conflict, Ossetian militias kicked many Ingush out of their homes and detained them in School Number One for days, executing several and depriving food and water to to others.
Apparently, this is why School Number One became a target.
Early that fateful September morning, two GAZ military trucks departed from a hidden rebel forest camp in Chechnya. Inside were at least 30 men and two women wearing camouflage uniforms and balaclavas, but the exact number remains controversial. They were heavily armed with assault rifles, sniper rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Several wore belts or underwear lined with explosives, allowing them to serve as suicide bombers on short notice.
Most were Chechens and Ingush, and many had lost family in the wars in Chechnya, although two Saudis and two Anglo-Algerians were present as well. Five of them had already been flagged as dead according to Russian intelligence services, eight of them had previously been arrested, and several were wanted under charges of murder and rape.
These were members of the Riyadh-us Saliheen Brigade, a radical terrorist group fighting to create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Their leader was Ruslan Kuchbarov, nicknamed Polkovnik, or “the Colonel.” Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev had just dispatched them on what was effectively a suicide mission.
Shamil Basayev. Natalia Medvedeva photo via Wikimedia
The Chechen Republic had won a war of de facto independence from Russia between 1994 and 1996, but the Russian army returned and crushed the separatists in a second war begun in 1999. After Russian forces leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny with artillery fire, the Chechen rebels fled into the mountains—and retaliated outside of Chechnya with a series of terrorists attacks targeting Russian civilians.
Basayev’s followers blew up the pro-Russian president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, with a bomb planted under his seat during a Soviet Victory Day parade in May 2004, and female suicide bombers destroyed two small airliners that August, killing 90. Kadyrov’s song, Ramzan, is the current ruler of Chechnya and enjoys a close relationship with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
One incident in the terror campaign that should have served as a cautionary tale was the 2002 Dubrovka Theater siege in Moscow, when 40 Chechen militants took 850 theater-goers hostage. Russian security forces pumped the theater full of a mysterious knockout gas and killed all of the hostage-takers—but the gas also fatally suffocated more than 100 hostages.
On the morning of Sept. 1, 2004, the Chechen separatists managed to bribe their way through an internal security checkpoint, and later kidnapped an Ingush police major. He managed to escape during a pit stop, and alerted Russian security forces that something was up several hours before the attack took place. But even with actionable intelligence, local security forces failed to respond until too late.
A half hour after the school day began at 9:00 a.m., Polkovnik’s team stormed the school. Only around 50 people inside managed to escape. Initially mistaken for Russian special forces, the terrorists rounded up around 800 children and 300 parents and teachers, herding most of them into the gymnasium. Police and local militia engaged in a brief shootout with the terrorists, killing one of their number and sustaining several losses before being driven off.
The hostage-takers quickly went about fortifying the premises with mines, trip-wire explosives and remotely detonated bombs—including several in the 25-by-10-meter auditorium crammed with children and their parents. They even prominently fastened one of the bombs to a basketball hoop. The terrorists shattered windows in order to counter any attempts by the Russian security forces to use the knockout gas again.
Several survivors reported the hostage-takers made them remove weapons and equipment that had been hidden inside the school prior to the attack, allegedly by insurgents disguised as maintenance personnel. However, official Russian accounts reject this claim.
Fearful of the hostages plotting against them, the attackers took away their cell phones and ordered them to speak only in Russian, not in their native Ossetian. When a local adult tried to explain the order in Ossetian to his fellow hostages, the terrorists shot him in the head, as well as another man who refused to kneel when commanded to do so.
You can see what the gym looked like on the first day of the siege in this film, recorded by the hostage-takers.
According to the lone captured survivor of the hostage-taking team, Nur-pashi Kulayev, the decision to hold so many children captive did not sit well with all of the attackers.
In his account, the two female Chechens, Roza Nagayeva and Mairam Taburova, argued with Polkvonik. He dispatched them to handle a group of a dozen male “high-risk” hostages. Shortly afterwards, the bombs the women were carrying exploded, killing them and the men they were guarding. According to Kulayev, the explosives had been remotely detonated by Polkovnik to make an example of them. The terrorists then threw the bodies of the hostages from the school windows.
By then Russian security forces had formed a perimeter 200 meters out from the school. They would eventually include the elite Alpha and Vympal Spetsnaz units of the Federal Security Bureau, as well as the OMON special police unit. Tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 58th Army deployed to back them up. Additionally, at least 100 local civilian opolchentsy militia and thousands of concerned civilians flocked to the scene, many of whom had family inside the school.
The Russian government incorrectly reported there were only 354 hostages in the school being held by 15 to 20 terrorists who had thus far issued no demands. Putin spoke only two sentences about the crisis while it was ongoing, after being asked about it while visiting the King of Jordan.
Hostages later recounted that the government’s downplaying of the incident enraged their captors, causing them to declare a “hunger strike” in which they refused to partake of food and water—and also denied them to their hostages. The separatists threatened to kill 50 more hostages for each member of their team killed by the security forces, and smaller numbers for other actions. They declared the strike would only end if they were allowed to negotiate with the president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, for Chechen independence.
However, Dzasokhov, who did not intervene in the hostage crisis, claimed later that the FSB threatened him with arrest if he contacted the terrorists.
The Russian government instead brought in Leonid Roshal, a doctor who had communicated with the hostage-takers in the Moscow Theater incident and whom the rebels deemed acceptable. The hostage-takers’ basic demand—that Russian forces withdraw from Chechnya—would obviously never be granted. Roshal instead tried fruitlessly to give the hostages access to food, water and medical treatment.
By the second day of the crisis, the children and adults trapped in the gym were fainting from heat and dehydration, causing many of the hostages to strip to their underclothes. Some resorted to drinking their own urine. The hostage-takers too began to grow hysterical from their self-imposed ban on food and water, doping up on pills and threatening to shoot crying babies. They began taking pot shots at the security forces and later in the second day launched two rocket-propelled grenades, setting a truck on fire.
A former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, joined the negotiations. At noon on the second day, he personally met with the hostage-takers and arranged the release of 15 nursing babies and 11 of their mothers—though a 12th mother refused to be separated from her older child still in the gym. Aushev carried her baby out to safety himself.
You can see Aushev’s visit in this second recording recovered after the siege.
The school’s 74-year-old physical education teacher, a Caucus Greek named Yanis Kanadis, also turned down an offer to leave in order to stay with his students. He instead berated his captors, and after beating him, they finally gave him permission to mop the foreheads of the younger children with a damp cloth.
Starting on the third day, negotiators appeared to be making progress on a deal to swap the children out of the school in exchange for 700 prominent Russians volunteering to take their place. They had already reached an agreement to have four medical personnel approach the school to remove the bodies the terrorists had thrown out.
Aslambek Aslankhanov, a Chechen adviser to Putin, intended to meet in person with the hostage-takers at 3:00 p.m. in an attempt to seal a deal. Aushev, meanwhile, had contacted the moderate and secular Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who declared himself willing to go to Beslan to aid in resolving the standoff if granted safe passage.
However, documents later revealed that during the previous day, a second secret headquarters had been set up under FSB director Nikolai Patrushev to formulate plans for an assault on the school. The negotiators, and the North Ossetian FSB chief officially in charge of the siege, Gen. Valery Andreyev, did not apparently have command authority over the assault forces.
Just after 1:00 p.m. on the third day, an explosion ripped through the school gym—followed by a second blast 20 seconds later. One of the blasts blew a hole through the wall, and the gym’s roof caught fire. Immediately afterwards, the terrorists opened fire, killing two approaching medical workers. Pandemonium broke out as the local militiamen began firing back at the school building. Ten minutes later, the Spetsnaz Alpha and Vympel contingents went on the assault and were greeted with a storm of automatic rifle fire.
When a local Ingush businessman who had been negotiating with the hostage-takers called one of them on a cell phone, the terrorist screamed at him “You tricked us!”
Inside Beslan School Number One. Photo via Wikimedia
What caused the explosions on Sept. 3?
This is the central controversy of the Beslan school siege. Were the deadly blasts that set the gym on fire set off by the Chechen separatists—or by the Russian security forces outside? Did one side deliberately initiate hostilities, or did a chain of mishaps lead to the carnage?
The official Russian inquiry maintains that the hostage-takers set off their bombs intentionally—an account not corroborated by surviving hostages, who have multiple explanations for what happened.
One possibility is that one of the hostage-takers’ home-made bombs went off by mistake due to faulty wiring or a handling error. Alternately, both Kulayev, the lone survivor among the terrorists, and one of the hostages, claims a Russian sniper shot one of the Chechens who had his foot on a dead man’s switch—setting off the bomb. The bomb installed on the basketball hoop does appear to have detonated—though when it did, and what caused it to do so is less clear.
Several survivors testified that the source of the explosions came from a projectile launched from the outside. An independent inquiry by investigator Yuri Suvalyev, a member of the Duma and an expert on in explosives, arrived at this very conclusion. He argues that Russian security troops fired on the gymnasium using RPO-A Shmel “flamethrowers,” actually disposable man-portable rocket launchers that fire either incendiary or thermobaric warheads.
This might explain why the gym caught fire. Suvalyev’s report also suggests the detonations may have been caused by RGP-26s or RPG-27s, both disposable rocket launchers capable of firing thermobaric ammunition.
The Russian government has confirmed—and defended—its use of RPO rockets during the Beslan siege. However, whether they caused the explosions that initiated the hostilities on Sept. 3 is harder to verify. Suvalyev cites as evidence at least three expended rocket canisters found on two buildings overlooking the gym where Russian troops had been positioned.
In 2007, the group Mothers of Beslan released a video they obtained from an anonymous informant. Shot on Sept. 3 and Sept. 4, it shows Russian soldiers inspecting the scorched remains of the gym, still littered with debris, some of it human. (The first of several clips from Sept. 4 is embedded below.) The soldiers mention that the majority of the terrorists’ explosive devices had not been set off. He also points to several holes punched into the side and floor of the gym, noting they appeared to come from an external attack.
You can see and hear what occurred on the outside at the moment of the explosion starting at 48:52.
The explosions killed many hostages. The flames soon claimed more victims already weakened from a lack of food and water. Hostages still in their underclothes began fleeing out windows or through the hole blasted in the wall. Terrorists shot at the escaping hostages, killing several including the gym teacher Kanidis, who was attempting to protect his students.
A photographer outside caught the image of an injured young girl clambering over the shattered windows of the burning gym—and then climbing back in to search for her mother. Shortly afterwards, the flaming roof collapsed entirely.
Both the girl and her mother survived—but investigators estimate more than 160 hostages died in the conflagration. A single local fire truck arrived two hours after the explosion but could not connect with the local water pump. Only with the arrival of a second truck a half-hour later did a genuine firefighting effort commence.
The Spetsnaz troops fought courageously. Both of the colonels leading the Alpha and Vympel teams died in the assault, as well as the deputy of Alpha, marking the heaviest losses incurred in the history of Russian special forces.
The security troops rolled a BTR-80 APC up to the school. The staccato rattle of its 14.5-millimeter heavy machine gun strafing the school building is audible in videos of the battle. T-72 tanks also shot several 125-millimeter shells into the school—apparently while the hostages were still inside according to survivors, though the Russian government report has dismissed their claims as baseless.
Hundreds of hostages made it out alive, many of them suffering burn, shrapnel and gunshot wounds. However, there were few ambulances available to spirit them swiftly to the local hospital. When they finally did arrive, the roughly 700 wounded rapidly swamped the hospital, which lacked adequate beds, supplies and staff to deal with the situation.
FSB troops seized most of the school building after two hours of heavy fighting. The hostage-takers split up. Many made their last stand in the school cafeteria, holding female hostages in front of them as they fired out the windows at Russian forces. One survivor recalled seeing tanks fire into the cafeteria and the women tumbling to the ground below. Three other terrorists took refuge in the basement with a human shield. They held out for six hours before being killed.
More than a dozen terrorists managed to break out of the government perimeter and flee into town. Fighting with security troops and local militias continued late into the night. Russian forces then cornered a large group of the terrorists in an abandoned home and pulverized it with RPO rockets and shells from a T-72 tank. A civilian mob lynched another one of the attackers in an incident caught on camera. Russian troops rescued hostage-takers Nur-Pashi Kulayev before he could meet a similar fate.
Some survivors claim there were significantly more hostage-takers present than the 31 killed and one captured by Russian forces. However, the Russian government claims these constituted the entire force, and the rebel leader Basayev later stated there was just one additional Chechen who escaped.
The body count was staggering: 334 of the hostages were dead, including 186 children—roughly half of them due to the fire in the gym. Between 10 and 20 Russian security troops died in the fighting, as well as a dozen more local militia and civilians. Hundreds of children and parents who survived were badly injured and psychologically traumatized. The world was horrified.
The following day, much of the wreckage was promptly bulldozed and the bodies disposed of without a forensic investigation. Police harassed and arrested several journalists who covered the story, and the editor of the periodical Izvestia resigned under pressure for his critical coverage of the siege.
President Putin called for two days of national mourning. He visited the hospitalized victims in a trip so brief his jet kept its engines running on the tarmac. Finally addressing the nation concerning the incident, he remarked “We showed ourselves to be weak, and the weak get beaten.”
Putin instituted a series of new laws centralizing power in the Kremlin, including replacing direct elections within Russia’s republics and oblasts with a system where the Kremlin nominated candidates for those posts, who were then subject to a simple yes-or-no vote. A massive security crackdown targeted Chechen internal immigrants across Russia, leading to the arrest of 10,000. Nonetheless, Russian state media initially exaggerated the involvement of foreign nationals in the attack to paint it as an Al Qaeda operation vaguely inspired by the U.S. war on terror, rather than emphasizing its relationship to the war in Chechnya.
Two weeks later, Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the attack in a rambling statement, in which he promised more attacks to come if Russia did not grant Chechnya independence. However, moderates in the separatist movement condemned his actions, and ultimately refocused the rebels’ effort against military targets for several years. Basayev was killed in a mysterious explosion in 2006, either due to an accidental land mine detonation or from Russian sabotage.
The citizens of Beslan were deeply traumatized—and furious that things had gone so very, very wrong. Family members who had lost children in the incident formed the Mothers of Beslan support group, which pressured the Russian government into launching an inquiry.
However, federal prosecutors found in December 2005 that Russian authorities had made “no mistakes.” A parliamentary commission produced the Torshin Report in 2005, which did criticize the conduct of local police forces and excoriated inaccurate statements by Gen. Andreyev—if you recall, the guy who wasn’t really in charge, and who resigned after the incident anyway.
The Torshin Report completely exonerated the federal security forces. It also liberally spread the blame, vaguely hinting at the involvement of a “foreign intelligence agency,” and accused the moderate Aslan Maskhadov, despite his statements condemning the attack.
Recall how the hostage-takers bribed their way through security checkpoints? In 2007, there were two separate trials of police officials involved in the Beslan incident. One ended with an amnesty, the second in an acquittal, leading the mothers present to ransack the court room.
The City of Angels memorial cemetery in Beslan. Rartat photo via Wikimedia
This complete rejection of misconduct seems extraordinary, even if you don’t believe Russian rockets set the gym on fire. Though the hostage situation presented a daunting and heartbreaking ordeal for security forces, their management of even non-tactical aspects of the situation seems to have been a mess.
Given 48 hours to prepare, Russian security forces failed to effectively secure the perimeter of the school to prevent rebels from breaking out, clear the area of armed civilians who could interfere with the operation, and mobilize emergency health and fire services whose absence on Sept. 3 resulted in needless loss of life.
The Mothers of Beslan, and the splinter group Voice of Beslan, continued to press for further inquiries, even after their lawyer quit after receiving a death threat. Russian officials later pressed multiple criminal charges on Voice of Beslan for its alleged extremism.
In the end, hundreds of family members of the victims filed complaints to the European Court of Human Rights between 2007 and 2011, claiming the conduct of the security forces had violated their family members’ human rights.
The Court of Human Rights is tied to the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg, France-based intergovernmental organization of which Russia is a member. It’s meant as venue of last resort for cases that can’t be heard in national courts. Emma Tagayeva, who had lost two sons and a husband in the attack, presented the lead claim in the suit.
Nearly a decade later on April 13, 2017, the court rendered its verdict. Russian security forces had “failed” in their duty to protect the hostages in Beslan. “In the absence of proper legal rules, powerful weapons such as tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers had been used on the school. This had contributed to the casualties among the hostages.”
Furthermore, the court hammered local security forces for failing to take preventive measures against the terrorists based on earlier intelligence, and the government for not properly investigating the cause of the explosion on Sept. 3, and refusing to turn over records to those attempting to do so.
As a result, the court demanded Russia pay the equivalent of $3.14 million in damages, to be divided among the 442 plaintiffs based on the extent of their loss, with most receiving sums of around $5,000 for each relative lost.
Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov has stated this verdict is “utterly unacceptable.” The Kremlin plans to appeal the ruling.