Beslan School Massacre

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Beslan School Massacre

"Carnage in Russian School Seige"


By: Sergey Ponomarev and NTV-Russian Television Channel

Date: September, 2004

Source: Images taken by Sergey Ponomarev and NTV-Russian Television Channel.

About the Photographers: The photograph was taken by Sergey Ponomarev, a Russian photographer who has worked for The Associated Press, an international wire service. The video stills were broadcast by the NTVRussian Television Channel, a satellite television channel.


September 1, 2004, was the first day of the new term at Middle School Number One in the southern Russian town of Beslan, North Ossetia. That morning the school building was filled with hundreds of students, whose ages generally ranged from seven to eighteen. Also in the school were teachers and staff, as well as numerous parents, many with younger siblings of the schoolchildren.

At 9:30 a.m., a group of about thirty-two armed terrorists, including two women, stormed the school, beginning a sixty-two-hour hostage crisis. Most were wearing black ski masks and camouflage uniforms, and many wore belts with explosives attached.

The events surrounding the siege were chaotic, and reports vary about the exact number of terrorists, their identities and nationalities, the number of hostages, and what actually happened. Generally, it is known that the terrorists' first step was to shoot twenty adult men and dump their bodies out of the building. They then herded their hostages—numbering up to 1,000—into the school's gymnasium, where the heat grew stifling and food, water, and bathroom access were denied. The terrorists also mined the gym with explosives, hanging some of them above the children's heads in bottles packed with pieces of metal, and set trip wires around the building to deter rescue operations. Meanwhile, Russian police and army troops surrounded the building and cordoned it off.

The Russian government tried to negotiate with the terrorists, primarily through the agency of the former president of neighboring Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, whom the terrorists requested by name. By the second day of the siege, negotiations were proving unsuccessful, although the terrorists did release twenty-six women and infants.

At about 1:00 in the afternoon of day three, the terrorists agreed to allow a medical team to remove the bodies of the dead, but as the team approached the building, the terrorists opened fire, killing two of the medical workers. When part of the gymnasium collapsed, about 30 hostages made a run for it, but several were shot and killed as they fled. Further gun-fire was followed by explosions in the school. Russian special forces then stormed the school, supported by regular army troops, helicopter gunships, and a tank. Adding to the chaos was the presence of local civilians who had brought their own rifles and started shooting.

The assault lasted about two hours. During that time, the terrorists exploded more bombs, destroying the gym and setting much of the rest of the school building on fire. During the gun battle, eleven soldiers were killed and at least thirty others were wounded; many were shot in the back as they tried to rescue children. By about 3:00, Russian forces were in control of much of the school, but the chaos continued. Terrorists and hostages were discovered in the school's basement. A number of the terrorists managed to slip through the cordon and blend into the civilian crowd that had gathered or they pretended to be medical workers. Others escaped to a nearby house, which Russian forces destroyed with flamethrowers at about 11:00 that evening. One suspect was beaten to death by the father of one of the hostages. By the time the fighting had ended, 344 civilians were dead, at least 172 of them children. Hundreds more were injured. The Russian government stated that all but one of the terrorists were killed.

These photos capture some of the horror of the siege. Russian citizens watched televised video made by the terrorists during the crisis, showing them rigging explosives inside the gymnasium. The first video still image, while blurry, shows the children packed into the gym; an explosive can be seen hanging from the basketball rim. The second image shows a terrorist releasing a baby to a physician sent by Aushev, the negotiator. The third image shows a photograph of the gym burning after an explosion 52 hours into the siege.



See primary source images


Initially, there was confusion about the identity of the terrorists. It was assumed that they were Chechen separatists, especially because the attack bore many similarities to the Chechen hostage siege at a Moscow theater in 2002. An adviser to Russia's president Vladimir Putin, however, negotiated with the terrorists and claimed that they did not speak Chechen, and the government claimed that they were a mix of Arabs, Tatars, Kazakhs, and Chechens. Hostages, however, insisted that none of the terrorists seemed to be Arab or Middle Eastern and that while they spoke Russian, it was with a Chechen accent. Meanwhile, the leader of the Chechen separatist movement, Aslambek Aslakhanov, denied Chechen involvement. The government also suggested that the terrorists were linked to al-Qaeda, but this was never established.

On September 17, however, a Chechen separatist named Shamil Basayev released a statement claiming responsibility not only for the Beslan massacre but also for a number of other terrorist incidents, including the Moscow theater siege, a 1995 hospital hostage crisis, and two events during the preceding week: the bombing of a Moscow subway station in which ten people were killed and the downing of two Russian airliners, killing eighty-nine people. As of 2005, Basayev remained among the most wanted men in Russia.

The Putin government was sharply criticized for the Beslan siege. Critics pointed to the number of fatalities both at Beslan and at the Moscow movie theater and suggested that the military was out of control. The military was also sharply criticized for failing to control the scene of the crisis, and especially for failing to keep civilians away. One poll indicated that up to 83 percent of Russians considered that the government did not tell the full truth about the incident.

Meanwhile, Russia instituted severe security measures. Moscow police detained thousands of people lacking proper identification papers. Resident registration laws were tightened. The death penalty for terrorism was reintroduced. Both the United States and the European Union criticized Putin for abridgments of civil liberties. Putin's critics in Russia assert that Putin seized on the incident to consolidate power, especially over the nation's media.



Meier, Andrew. Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict. New York: Norton, 2004.

Web sites

BBC News. "School Siege: Eyewitness Accounts." September 7, 2004. <> (accessed May 23, 2005).

Observer. "When Hell Came Calling at Beslan's School No 1." September 5, 2004. <,6903,1297633,00.html> (accessed May 23, 2005).

Audio and Visual Media

BBC News. "Russian TV Shows School Siege Terror." September 8, 2004. Available from <> (with video link).