Piercing wails cut through the air as grief-stricken residents of this southern Russian town held a moment of silence Saturday, a year to the day after hundreds of their relatives and neighbors died in a hail of gunfire and explosions that ended a horrific school hostage crisis.
President Vladimir Putin ordered his prosecutor-general to send investigators for a fresh probe into Russia’s worst terrorist attack, a day after he met with Beslan residents who have complained about the way authorities handled the school seizure.
By 1:05 p.m., the time of the first explosion that announced the bloody end to the three-day hostage crisis, at least 4,000 people had squeezed into the courtyard outside the Beslan school gymnasium where the victims endured terror, thirst and hunger.
As a bell tolled, children released 331 white balloons into the air to symbolize the souls of the dead. The moment of silence was broken by a wave of wailing that rippled through crowd, and at least one woman collapsed.
An on-again, off-again drizzle of rain fell on the gathering crowd, their faces dazed with anguish.
“We haven’t had rain in a month and now, today, it’s as if someone is crying for us,” said Zaira Gudzayeva, gesturing toward the sky.
In the Russian capital, where flags were flying at half-staff Saturday, a pro-Kremlin youth group planned a large rally off Red Square to mark the Beslan anniversary.
The theme of the Nashi group’s Moscow demonstration was to be “Without Words” — which opposition representatives have seized on as emblematic of the authorities’ alleged attempt to avoid tough questions about their handling of the crisis and subsequent investigation.
On Saturday, Putin opened the weekly meeting of his Security Council with a moment of silence. He then announced he had instructed prosecutors to send representatives to Beslan to verify the information he had been provided at a meeting Friday with seven Beslan residents and the region’s leader.
The group included representatives of a mothers’ committee who have demanded that negligent or corrupt officials be prosecuted over the attack.
“I must say, they are disturbed by the way the investigation is being conducted, by the fact that up to this point there are no objective data on the course of the investigation of the terrorist attack, about the circumstances that allowed the terrorist attack to become possible at all,” Putin said in televised comments. “I consider it an absolutely correct opinion that an objective and exhaustive investigation of such a case should lead to a cardinal improvement of all the entire law enforcement sphere in the country.”
He called on prosecutors to conduct an additional examination of the entire body of evidence and testimony.
Beslan Mothers’ Committee leader Susanna Dudiyeva told reporters after Friday’s meeting that the group still held Putin personally responsible for the tragedy and that Putin told them he feels guilty. The president reiterated that on Saturday.
“You know, like every country in the world Russia is a target of terrorist attacks, and unfortunately our country, like many others, does not always turn out to be able to effectively repulse these attacks,” Putin said.
“I must say that each of us, both as a citizen and as a function of his official position, bears responsibility for everything that happens in this sphere,” Putin said.
Victims tell Putin 'our side'
According to the Kommersant daily, whose correspondent was present at the beginning of the Friday meeting, a delegation member told Putin he had been misinformed.
“I think that what has been reported to you is not objective,” the newspaper quoted Viktor Yesiyev, who had been held hostage in the school, as saying. “And we decided to tell you how it was in Beslan in those days in fact, from our own side.”
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. More than 330 victims died, most in a firestorm of explosions and gunfire that brought the crisis to a bloody end nearly three days later.
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.