MOSCOW – Russian prosecutors found no mistakes in the authorities' handling of the Beslan school siege in southern Russia, the official leading the probe said Tuesday. A total of 331 people died in the tragedy, and relatives of the victims responded to the findings with anger.
Most of the victims — including 186 children — died in explosions and gunfire during a raid that ended the three-day drama.
"We didn't expect anything else, the prosecutors are sticking to their version of events and ignoring victims' testimony," Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, told The Associated Press.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said in comments released by his office Tuesday that a reconstruction of the September 2004 raid had established that police and other security forces involved in the rescue operation did not bear any blame for the ensuing tragedy.
Prosecutors' preliminary conclusions differ sharply from those of an earlier probe by a regional legislative panel that blamed authorities for botching rescue efforts, and urged that those responsible be punished.
The results of a third probe by the national parliament are to be unveiled on Wednesday. If they back up the critical regional inquiry, the results could put pressure on the Prosecutor General's office to amend its findings in a final report yet to be published.
Militants attacked School No. 1 on Sept. 1, 2004 — the first day of school — taking more than 1,100 children, parents and staff hostage and herding them into the gymnasium, which they rigged with explosives.
The rebels, who were demanding that Russian troops withdraw from the nearby breakaway province of Chechnya, crossed heavily policed territory to reach the school, and victims' relatives are convinced they received help from corrupt officials.
The hostages' families also have been deeply critical of the flawed rescue operation, saying hostages died needlessly because special forces used flame-throwers, grenade launchers and tanks against the militants.
But Shepel said the security forces and rescue personnel had all acted appropriately.
"According to the conclusions of the investigation, the expert commission did not find ... any violations that could be responsible for the harmful consequences that resulted from the terrorist act in Beslan," the prosecutor said.
However, Shepel added that the experts had concluded that the system for preventing terrorist acts in Russia did not provide sufficient protection for the country's population.
Dudiyeva called for top officials involved in the rescue operation to be punished.
"You need to punish those who did not carry out their duties properly. Our children are no longer with us," she said.
Russia's southern regions have increasingly been plagued by violence, some of it stemming from criminal gang feuds, some spilling over from the separatist conflict in Chechnya.
On Tuesday three policemen were wounded in a shootout with suspected rebels they were trying to apprehend in the southern Russian district of Dagestan, near the Chechen border.
In Chechnya, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a military post in the southern region of Vedeno on Monday, the press service of the Chechen Interior Ministry said. The military post came under fire from several parts of a nearby wooded area, it said.