Russians observe day of mourning

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

BESLAN, Russia -- A numb Russia observed the first national day of mourning for the more than 350 victims of the terrorist school seizure on Monday, while foreign planes delivered medical supplies to this grief-stricken southern region neighboring Chechnya.

In Beslan, townspeople crowded around the coffins of children, parents, grandparents and teachers ahead of the 120 burials scheduled in the town cemetery and adjoining fields.

At the school at the center of the tragedy, people lit candles and left shrines including children's notebooks, shoes, and bottles of water -- symbolizing the water the hostages were denied over three days of terror.

Two rescue workers from Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry who were killed in the first moments of the battle over the school Friday -- when they arrived to remove the bodies of executed hostages -- were being laid to rest in Ramenskoye, the ministry's base outside Moscow.

Criticism mountingCriticism of the government response was mounting, with even Russian state television chiding officials for understating the magnitude of the crisis, for their slowness to admit that previous recent attacks were by terrorists, and for their apparent paralysis.

"At such moments, society needs the truth," Rossiya television commentator Sergei Brilyov said Sunday night.

Yet the criticism, which was almost certainly sanctioned by the Kremlin, stopped short of the president himself.

Brilyov blamed the "system of administration," where "everything hangs on the bravery of the rank and file, but generals can't bring themselves to act until the president throws ideas to them." On Saturday, Putin had criticized Russia's law enforcement agencies for failing to rise to the challenge of terrorism.

On Sunday, weeping mourners placed flowers and wreaths at graves hastily dug by volunteers, including one where two sisters -- Alina, 12, and Ira, 13 -- were laid to rest together. Relatives walked toward the cemetery bearing portraits of the dark-haired girls and simple wooden planks -- temporary grave markers -- bearing their names and the dates framing their short lives.

For date of death, both read Sept. 3, 2004, the day the hostage seizure -- the third deadly terrorist attack to strike Russia in just over a week -- ended in a bloody wave of explosions and gunfire when commandos stormed the school as hostages fled after powerful blasts shook the building.

The paroxysm of violence left few families untouched in this tight-knit, mostly industrial town, whose population of 30,000 belies a village atmosphere in which many leave their doors unlocked. Most people in Beslan had a relative, friend or neighbor killed or wounded.

The official death toll stood at 335 Monday, not including the 30 slain attackers; the regional health ministry said 326 of the dead had been hostages, and the Emergency Situations Ministry said 156 of the dead were children.

410 still in hospitalMore than 700 people needed medical help after the crisis. The North Ossetian health ministry said 410 remained hospitalized, including 23 in Moscow and 11 in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

As of Sunday, around 100 people were unaccounted for, the Interior Ministry said. Russian media speculated that some of the missing could be wounded victims who were too hurt, traumatized or young to identify themselves when they were hospitalized. Also, many of the dead have not been identified, with some bodies charred beyond recognition.

A plane delivered antibiotics, bandages and other medical supplies from Italy on Sunday, and two U.S. transport planes were due to deliver aid to Beslan later Monday.

As some residents buried their dead, others searched for relatives. Many expressed doubt over government accounts of the tragedy. Only on Saturday did officials finally acknowledge that the number of hostages exceeded 1,100, far more than previously stated.

Questions swirled about the events leading up to the chaotic climax of the crisis as well as about the identity of the hostage-takers. State-controlled Channel One television, without citing a source, said Sunday that the attackers included Kazakhs, Chechens, Arabs, Ingush and Slavs.

North Ossetia's Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said Saturday that 35 attackers were killed. However, Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said Sunday that according to the latest information, 32 terrorists had been involved and the bodies of 30 of them had been found, Interfax reported.

Three suspects were detained Saturday in Beslan, Interfax reported, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, and Channel One showed an unidentified man Fridinsky said was among the attackers in the hands of masked officers. Fridinsky said the man, who spoke Russian with an accent, would be charged and that he was giving useful evidence.

The school seizure came a day after a suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people and just over a week after two Russian passenger planes crashed following explosions, killing all 90 people aboard.

As with the hostage-taking, those attacks appeared linked to Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya.

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