Moscow Questioned on Handling of Siege

Russian soldiers fled as shooting broke out in the spasm of violence that ended the school siege here, and unprepared special forces were forced to borrow bullets from armed locals who had rushed to the scene.

As Beslan buried more victims Friday, a week after the bloodbath at School No. 1 (search), questions lingered over how authorities handled the three-day standoff that left at least 330 hostages dead.

"One of the most painful questions that that whole world is asking — why all the events surrounding the Beslan school No. 1 looked so out of control ... probably has an answer: Because nobody was in charge of the operation," the Russian daily Russkiy Kuryer said in an editorial Friday.

President Bush has asked top advisers to study how authorities would deal with a similar assault on an American school.

Referring to the Beslan crisis, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) told The Associated Press on Thursday that "preliminary reports suggest there wasn't the kind of coordination and leadership and direction and somebody being in charge."

Meanwhile, the mound of flowers and wreaths at the school continues to grow as mourners converge from around the Caucasus region of North Ossetia (search), home to Beslan. Some also leave food and water, among the deprivations the hostages suffered.

Not a single room was left untouched by the attack, which began Sept. 1 as children arrived with their parents for what was to have been a festive first day of class.

Shrapnel and blood spatters the hallways and hundreds of bullet holes riddle the walls both inside and out. But other signs of the battle are already disappearing. Children from the town have collected many of the rocket-launcher tubes left scattered around the school.

Officials aroused suspicion from the start by insisting the hostages numbered about 350, when in fact they were more than 1,200. Residents rushed to the scene, fearing authorities planned to storm the building and didn't want the public to know so many lives hung in the balance.

"From the start, (authorities) weren't doing things right," said Artur Belikov, 35, attending a wake for two relatives killed, Albina Budayeva, 38, and her 3-year-old daughter Valeria.

But Katya Tsikayeva, 69, also at a wake at Beslan's cemetery, argued that troops should have immediately stormed the building. 'Why did they wait a second day, a third day — to let so many die?" she asked.

A Beslan resident who gave only his first name, Robert, said he arrived soon after the siege started and stood guard throughout.

He would not say where he got his gun; private citizens aren't normally allowed to keep weapons in Russia. However, many people in the Caucasus, where myriad conflicts have erupted since the 1991 Soviet collapse, are believed to have arms at home.

The standoff ended Sept. 3, when an explosion inside the school sent children fleeing and their captors began shooting them in the back — prompting the forces gathered outside to return fire.

He said conscript soldiers fled as the fighting began. "They were worried about their own lives," said Robert, 31, who had several relatives inside.

Locals handed their clips of ammunition to elite troops who didn't have enough bullets, Robert said. "They weren't ready."

The arrival of some special forces was also delayed because they didn't have bulletproof vests, residents said.

By official accounts, 11 elite soldiers were killed in the siege, more than in any other single battle. Some media reports have said they were shot in the back by locals at the scene.

Gena, an Interior Ministry warrant officer from a nearby region who wasn't involved in the battle, said it appeared authorities had no plans for what to do when mayhem broke out. Visiting the school Friday, he said troops should have taken the children away from the school before returning fire.

"If they already had two days, they needed to think of something," said Gena, who had six relatives among the hostages and also gave only his first name.

Lamenting the corruption and lapses in duty that allowed the attackers to bring their arsenal to the school, residents are demanding a full explanation of the circumstances that made the attack possible as well as how it all ended.

Whether they will get it remains to be seen.

"No one really knows the truth of what happened, and it won't be known for a long time," Belikov said.