Identification of Beslan Victims in Russia

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Identification of Beslan Victims in Russia

The Republic of Chechnya in southwest Russia has been seeking its independence from the rest of the Russian Republic. During Russian Premier Joseph Stalin's reign from 19291953, he had many Chechens deported to distant regions, such as Siberia. Since that time, the Chechens have sought their independence from Russia. However, it was the proclamation of war on Chechnya launched by the Russian military in 1994, after failed attempts to oust the Chechen president, that launched the long and bitter fighting that has since ensued between the Republic of Chechnya and Russia. Armed conflicts and allegations of crimes against humanity by the Russians against the Chechens have resulted in terrorist attacks from the Chechen rebels. The escalating violence generated a devastating seizure and attack on a Russian school by Chechen terrorists, resulting in over 300 deaths. More than 100 of the victims required forensic DNA identification . Forensic analysis of the Chechen hostage takers also produced evidence that they were under the influence of narcotics at the time of the attack.

September 1, 2004, was the first day of school after summer break for the children of Beslan school number 1 in the North Ossetia region of Russia, which borders the Republic of Chechnya. However, shortly after arrival at the school, over 1,200 students, teachers, and parents were taken hostage by Chechen terrorists. The hostage takers demanded that Russian troops leave nearby Chechnya and continued to hold the hostages in the school gymnasium for three days. The world watched on television as parents and relatives of the hostages gathered outside the school. Conflicting reports on the number of hostages added to the confusion.

The culmination of the takeover was a series of explosions and gun battles between the Chechen militants and the Russian police. A massive fire broke out in the gymnasium, where the majority of the hostages were confined. Many were shot trying to escape as waiting relatives outside looked on in horror. When the violence was over, a total of 336 people had been killed, including 156 children and 31 of the Chechen rebels. Many of the bodies in the gymnasium were severely burned, charred, and unrecognizable.

Over 350 wounded were taken to nearby hospitals and the victims who had perished were transferred to the Vladikavkaz morgue. In the confusion, hundreds of people were missing. Desperate friends and family members clutched photographs and searched the hospitals hoping to find their relatives among the injured. They also went to the morgue hoping not to find their loved ones among the dead victims.

Initially, bodies of victims were identified physically, by their clothing, birthmarks or characteristics recognized by friends and family members. Because so many of the bodies were severely burned, the investigators turned to DNA analysis for identification of many of the victims. It was a difficult task, as the badly burned state of the corpses required multiple extractions and PCR amplification assays to obtain DNA that was able to produce a profile. Relatives of missing persons provided blood samples, which were also used to generate DNA profiles. Samples of both relatives and victims were taken to Moscow for analysis. Comparison of the profiles of the victims to that of the relatives provided definitive identification of all of the unidentified victims with the exception of one child. The DNA profile from the last child victim identified did not match the DNA profile of the parents, requiring many buried bodies to be exhumed and re-examined. Finally, all victims were correctly identified, enabling the families to bury and mourn their loved ones.

Forensic techniques were used in another means to investigate the tragedy at the Beslan school. Among the dead were 31 of the Chechen terrorists who had held the hostages in the gymnasium. Blood was taken from the Chechens and sent to Moscow for forensic analysis. Russian law enforcement officials reported that most of the militants were under the influence of drugs at the time that the school was seized. High levels of both heroin and morphine were found in many of the attackers' blood. Those without evidence of narcotics in their system showed signs of abuse of other drugs.

The forensic tests of the militants also indicated that some of them had been in withdrawal, and had not received drugs for several days. Such a state is often consistent with aggressive and abnormal behavior. The lack of drugs could account for some of the attackers' brutality. The suspicion that the hostage takers were probably long-time drug abusers is consistent with the suggestion that many leaders of groups that plan terror attacks coerce their followers into taking narcotics. Individuals in a drug-induced state may be more amenable to carrying out the grim tasks associated with many terrorist attacks.

Forensic analysis was paramount during the investigation of the tragedy at Beslan school number 1. Without these modern forensic techniques, the investigation would have required much more time, requiring those affected by the tragedy to wait for answers rather than begin the healing process.

see also CODIS: Combined DNA Index System; DNA; DNA profiling; European Network of Forensic Science Institutes; PCR (polymerase chain reaction); STR (short tandem repeat) analysis; Toxicological analysis; Toxicology.

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Identification of Beslan Victims in Russia

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