VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia – Anguished relatives of children killed in a school siege a year ago said Wednesday the government has failed to learn from the tragedy and they warned persistent corruption has left Russia (search) vulnerable to similar attacks in the future.
"If this isn't corrected, there will be another terrorist attack like Beslan," said Susanna Dudiyeva, whose son was among more than 330 people killed. "We are fighting for the truth."
Her comments came on the eve of ceremonies in a burnt-out gymnasium decorated with stuffed animals to mark the first anniversary of the hostage-taking, which began Sept. 1, 2004, on the first day of school.
Several mothers of victims have accused President Vladimir Putin's (search) government of mounting a cover-up, insisting the militants had help from corrupt officials to allow them to cross heavily policed territory of North Ossetia, where Beslan (search) is located.
Critics also allege that corruption may have contributed to the apparent ease with which the more than 30 heavily armed attackers made their way to the school.
At School No. 1's gymnasium, where more than 1,100 people — mostly children — endured nearly three days of heat, thirst, hunger and fear, color photographs of the victims hang on bullet-scarred walls alongside faded graffiti begging victims' forgiveness.
Dying carnations rested on windowsills next to burned timbers and mildewed stuffed animals. The remnants of the roof, which collapsed on victims on the last day of the siege, were covered by metal and plastic to shield against rain.
The militants who commandeered the gymnasium demanded an end to Russian military presence in Chechnya. The attack ended Sept. 3 when Russian forces stormed the school after explosions were heard inside. More than half the hostages who died were children.
"The government is supposed to guarantee our lives, take responsibility for our lives, and they haven't, so we're taking responsibility," said Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee. Representatives of the group will fly to Moscow on Friday to meet Putin and address grievances, she said.
Thousands of Ossetians were expected to be in Beslan for the commemorative ceremonies that begin Thursday. But Putin was unwelcome "since he is responsible for what happened in Beslan," Dudiyeva said. "He is the guarantor of our freedom and our security and therefore, the responsibility (for Beslan) lies with president first and foremost."
North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov, whose predecessor was forced out after the Beslan attack, said Russian special forces acted "abominably" in the seizure's final hours, when most of the hostages died. Some witness have said tank fire, flame-throwers and sniper bullets killed far more people than the hostage-takers did.
"As a man, as a father, as a resident, as a leader, as an Ossetian, we all should feel guilt," Mamsurov said in an interview with foreign journalists.
Zalina Guboreva, 42, called for officials to be held responsible for the attack that killed her mother and her 9-year-old son.
"We've had awards, we've had promotions. ... But not one punishment," she said. "The whole month we've been unable to eat, to drink, to sleep. It's even worse now. My son was my entire life."
Another mother, 41-year-old Emma Kisayeva, said Putin should resign. "The man who failed in Moscow, who is to blame for the death of so many people, should not be the president," she said. "Enough is enough. They are ordinary people and should be held responsible for all their mistakes and their crimes."
Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, who has said he masterminded the attack, claimed Russian security services enabled the hostage-takers to travel unhindered through the region and that a Russian double agent had been among them.
In the statement posted Wednesday on the Kavkaz Center Web site, Basayev said top security officials in North Ossetia opened a safe route Aug. 31 for rebels to reach the regional capital, Vladikavkaz. The alleged double agent was supposed to have gained Basayev's confidence and then led his men into a trap as they were en route to seize government buildings in Vladikavkaz on Sept. 6.
Instead, the militants seized the school, Basayev said.
Basayev's claim seemed designed in part to stoke already strong distrust of top government officials in the volatile region that includes North Ossetia and Chechnya.
Basayev also claimed a second attacker survived the three-day siege and was now with his followers. Russian prosecutors dismissed the claim. They say all but one of the 32 attackers were killed; the man they say is the sole survivor is on trial.
The authenticity of Basayev's statement could not be confirmed independently, but the KavkazCenter site is considered his faction's mouthpiece and he has never disavowed previous statements there in his name.