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Russian School Siege Rescue Flawed

The head of the Russian parliamentary commission investigating last year's Beslan school siege said Wednesday that the operation to free hostages was riddled by "miscalculations and shortcomings," the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Alexander Torshin was summing up the results of the probe so far in the upper house of parliament, while victims' families expressed outrage at a prosecutors' report that exonerated the authorities over the deaths of 331 people in the terrifying hostage-taking.

He said that Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and his deputy had sent telegrams less than two weeks before the militants' raid instructing the regional police department in North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, to beef up security on the first day of school.

"These instructions could have prevented the terrorist act or interfered with its being carried out, but they were not followed," he was quoted as saying.

Nearly 16 months have passed since armed Islamic militants seized more than 1,100 pupils, their teachers and parents in the southern Russian town of Beslan, provoking a tense three-day standoff with security forces that ended in a bloodbath.

Torshin criticized authorities' failure to report truthfully on the number of hostages involved, 1,128 instead of the 354 they announced early in the siege, as well as the weak coordination between law enforcement agencies.

"The list of miscalculations and shortcomings could be continued," he told lawmakers, according to RIA-Novosti.

With the release of the prosecutors' report and the results of the parliamentary probe, both only preliminary, the government's handling of the crisis has come under renewed scrutiny.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the Prosecutor General's office to investigate the September 2004 hostage crisis, initially resisted the establishment of an independent commission by the parliament.

A separate probe by the regional legislature accused Russian authorities of botching rescue efforts and urged that those officials responsible in part for the Sept. 3, 2004, incident be punished.

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel, who is leading the prosecutors' investigation, said Tuesday that his probe so far had not discovered any mistakes by security forces in dealing with the siege.

That fueled already simmering anger among Beslan residents, who have argued that authorities bungled their response to the crisis and mounted a cover-up of their mistakes.

"You need to punish those who did not carry out their duties properly. Our children are no longer with us," Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, told The Associated Press, calling for top officials involved in the raid to be punished.

The militants seized Beslan's School No. 1 on the first day of classes, herding the hostages into the gymnasium, which they rigged with explosives.

The hostages suffered in hot, unsanitary conditions and were denied water by their captors during the ordeal, which ended in explosions and gunfire on the third day of the standoff. The dead hostages included 186 children.

The rebels, who were demanding that Russian troops withdraw from nearby Chechnya after a decade of separatist fighting there, had crossed heavily policed territory to reach Beslan, and victims' relatives are convinced they got help from corrupt officials.

Families of the hostages have strongly criticized the rescue operation, saying hostages died needlessly because special forces soldiers used flame-throwers, grenade launchers and tanks against the militants.

In a Nov. 29 report, a panel from the North Ossetian regional legislature called actions by the Russian Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service during the siege "unsatisfactory."

The panel said authorities failed to coordinate rescue efforts and made serious missteps, such as grossly underestimating the number of hostages in the siege's early hours. It also said it found no evidence to support the government's claim that the climactic battle began when a militant accidentally set off explosives inside the gymnasium.

Five senior policemen have been charged with criminal negligence for failing to prevent the raid.

Preliminary hearings in the trial of three of them, who are from North Ossetia, were to open on Wednesday.

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