By Mike Eckel
The Associated Press
MOSCOW — A video that remained secret for nearly three years after the horrific Beslan hostage crisis has cast new doubt on official conclusions about what led to the deaths of 334 people, more than half of them children, during one of Russia's worst terrorist attacks.
The footage is far from definitive, but appears to lend credence to the theory that security forces bear at least some of the blame for the high death toll.
A central question about the carnage is what caused the initial explosions that were followed by a chaotic gunbattle, fire and the collapse of the roof of School No. 1's gymnasium, where more than 1,100 hostages had been held by militants demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.
A final official report on the events of Sept. 1-3, 2004, has not been released. The lead parliamentary investigator has suggested homemade bombs rigged by the 32 heavily armed men and women in the gymnasium were detonated by the militants, and that was the primary reason for the high death toll.
However, victims and relatives of the dead, and at least one member of the parliamentary commission, maintain law enforcement agencies botched the rescue, using flame-throwers, grenade launchers and heavy guns that worsened the situation. Dozens of survivors insist the explosions that sparked the maelstrom came from outside the building.
Susanna Dudiyeva, who heads the Beslan Mothers' Committee and whose 13-year-old son died in the attack, accused Russia's primary security agency, the Federal Security Service or FSB, of withholding crucial evidence.
"The FSB is giving up none of its own secret video material, which should have been turned over to investigators as evidence," she said. "Not one FSB agent has been interrogated. We have access to not one part of the documentary or video material or information."
"The investigation is at a dead end," she said.
It was not clear who made the video or why, but it appeared to have been made by prosecutors or government investigators. The fact that it reflects badly on security agencies may explain why it was kept secret for so long.
The footage, obtained by The Associated Press Monday, was shot with a hand-held camera and has a time-stamp from the moment on the afternoon of Sept. 3 when the first of two large explosions erupted. A cloud of smoke billows from near the building and gunfire can be heard.
Footage time-stamped several hours later shows several homemade explosive devices on a table. The devices, bottles filled with shrapnel and ball bearings, had been hung from basketball hoops and the roof of the gymnasium.
Men, who are not shown, can be heard talking. They appear to be bomb experts and the Kommersant newspaper said they were army engineers being questioned by prosecutors.
"The holes inside (on the walls) could not have been caused by these explosives," one of the men says.
"If the explosions had been caused by these devices from inside the building..." he continues.
"Look at the ball bearings," the second interrupts.
"As they keep saying, all of these (ball bearings) would have been scattered around but on the children we brought out (of the school) there was no evidence of these sorts of injuries. And all around too," the first man says.
"So there was no explosion inside the building?" a third man asks.
"Inside the building, there was no explosion," the first man answers.
The video was shown to some survivors and relatives of victims in Beslan last week by activists who have criticized the official investigations. Activists said law enforcement agencies confiscated many copies of the video from them in North Ossetia, the region where Beslan is located.
Brief segments of the video have been posted on Russian newspaper Web sites, including one by the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta from Sept. 4 — the day after the siege ended — that shows an investigator surveying the school's courtyard. Bodies can be seen being put into black body bags.
Another video clip shows used grenade launchers lined up on the ground, though it was unclear to whom the weapons belonged.
Regional prosecutors did not answer telephones Tuesday and federal prosecutors refused comment. A spokesman for the FSB also declined comment, saying all requests should be submitted in writing.
Last December, Alexander Torshin, chairman of the parliamentary commission set up to investigate the attack, summarized what he said was a final version of his commission's report before the lower house of parliament.
Torshin laid blame for the seizure on local law enforcement, who he said did not follow orders from Moscow to increase security ahead of the start of the school year. He said the explosion precipitating the bloodshed was a bomb set off by the terrorists.
He also said there was no firm evidence that tanks fired on the school while hostages were inside — contradicting accounts by eyewitnesses, including AP reporters, photographers and videographers.
Torshin was on vacation and could not be reached Tuesday, his spokeswoman said.
Yuri Savelyev, a lawmaker who was part of the Torshin commission, said he had not seen the video, but people had described it to him.
He said it appeared to confirm his conclusions, which differed from the Torshin report and found that grenade-launchers and gunfire from outside the school sparked the explosions and fire that brought down the gymnasium roof.
"The fighters did not blow up the hall," he said.
He speculated that the video — which activists said was sent to them anonymously by mail — had been leaked, perhaps to force personnel changes among federal security agencies, prosecutors or law enforcement officials.
Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said the video highlighted the "total and absolute failure of the security services" during the school seizure.
"It's absolutely clear that authorities don't want to hear any alternative version of the assault in Beslan," he said.
Officials have said 31 of the 32 militants who seized the school were killed. The sole known survivor, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, was convicted last year and sentenced to life in prison.