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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Two years ago Chechen insurgents took over a school in Beslan, Russia. The siege lasted three days and ended with fires, explosions and a gun battle between the Chechens and Russian forces. Three hundred thirty-one people died, many of them children.

CHADWICK: There have been investigations and trials to determine who was responsible for the deaths, but still few answers so far. Reporter Kelly McEvers has the first of two reports.

KELLY MCEVERS reporting:

Beslan is a long way from Moscow, about two and a half hours south by plane. Down below the town sits at the base of the mighty Caucasus mountain range. The architecture in Beslan is blocky and Soviet. The weather is usually gray and misty. I'm walking toward the train tracks. It sort of marks the center of town. And once I cross the train tracks I'll be at school number one. I'm working with a guy who's a terrorism researcher. His name is Adam Dolnik. He spent an enormous part of the last year studying Beslan.

Adam and I went to what's left of school number one.

Mr. ADAM DOLNIK (Terrorism Researcher): The picture's pasted.

MCEVERS: Uh huh. These flowers.

Photos of the people who died here line the walls, children and parents in their best dresses and suits. The attackers struck during an assembly on the first day of school.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

MCEVERS: Emergency room doctor Larissa Mamitova was there with her son. At first she didn't know what happened.

Dr. LARISSA MAMITOVA (Emergency Room Physician): (Through interpreter) I heard gunshots and I though the kids are making fireworks, that's great.

MCEVERS: The gunmen rounded up hostages and packed them into the gym.

Dr. MAMITOVA: (Through interpreter) It was so hot. Everybody was depressed.

MCEVERS: The rebels, or boyviki, as they're known, ordered students to hang bombs from the ceiling and barked out rules. No cell phones. No talking. One parent stood and tried to calm people. He was shot in the head.

Dr. MAMITOVA: (Through interpreter) It was a corpse, a body. They made a girl clean up the blood. Somebody tapped me and said they're looking for a doctor. They led me down the corridor and showed me two wounded boyviki. I was putting the bandage on the second one and asked, why are you doing this? We want peace in Chechnya, he explained. Our women are being raped, our children are being killed. I told him, you should have taken the authorities hostage, not kids. He said, doctor, if you only knew how we got here, you would be very surprised.

MCEVERS: Many of the hostage-takers were from the nearby Russian republic of Chechnya, which has waged a separatist war with Russia for more than a decade. The siege operation began outside Chechnya here in the woods. All along the main roads there are armed checkpoints. But the boyviki didn't pass through any of them. Instead they drove on back roads through the woods. Here's terrorism researcher Adam Dolnik.

Mr. DOLNIK: What this means is that the boyviki were allowed to camp unmolested in the woods for nearly two weeks, that they were allowed to drive dirt roads out of the woods and bypass checkpoints, and possibly that they prearranged their route beforehand.

MCEVERS: The boyviki reached Beslan in less than an hour and quickly rounded up more than twelve hundred hostages into the school. News traveled quickly through town. Officials announced that terrorists had made no demands and that there were only a hundred and twenty hostages in the school. Hostage Larissa Mamitova heard the news on a radio in the school. She decided to try and carry a message from the boyviki to soldiers outside.

Dr. MAMITOVA: (Through interpreter): I suggested to that boyvik, let me go out and say your demands. They took me to the library and the colonel was there. He said, sit down, write this down.

MCEVERS: The leader of the boyviki recited a list of demands. The first was that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. Larissa Mamitova carried the demands outside, the boyviki gave her a warning.

Dr. MAMITOVA: (Through interpreter): They told me, go out and give them the list and come right back. If you take one step out of the gate your son will be killed. A man (unintelligible) to me and I shouted and I said to him, Don't believe the news, there are many more than 120 people in here.

MCEVERS: News reports later upped that figure to 354 hostages, still far below the actual number. This angered the boyviki even more, said a hostage named Agunda.

AGUNDA (Hostage): (Through interpreter) On the second day the boyviki said things like, no one needs you, nobody cares about you, they're not responding to our demands, we're going to kill you all. Then they stopped giving us water.

MCEVERS: Later the boyviki started getting phone calls from government negotiators. This seemed to make them happy.

Dr. MAMITOVA: (Through interpreter) They said wait, a big person is coming. Calm down and make room for him. Everyone said, oh, that's awesome, and everyone was glad.

MCEVERS: She's talking about Ruslan Aushev, a well-known former leader of a neighboring Russian republic.

Mr. RUSLAN AUSHEV: (Through interpreter) I asked the hostages if they recognized me and they said yes. I told them we would do everything possible to let them out. The hostage-takers were very confident and calm. Their demands were hand-written on a piece of paper. Their goal was to make me communicate these demands. I asked them to set the infants free.

The note was addressed to Russian president Putin and signed by Shamil Basayev then the leader of the Chechen militants. It said if Russian withdrew and gave Chechnya its independence, the Chechens would become an ally of Russia. We are offering you peace in exchange for security, the note said. The choice is yours.

MCEVERS: Aushev took the offer and led 11 mothers and fifteen babies out of the gym.

(Soundbite of voices)

MCEVERS: The boyviki made this video of the release. Mothers thanked Aushev as they clutch their babies.

Unidentified Man: At that moment were you fairly confident after you walked out whether this was good? Perhaps this can be negotiated.

Mr. AUSHEV: (Through interpreter) It's a very difficult question. The thing I hoped for was that we would still be able to enter and get the people out, that the federal authorities in Moscow would at least send a signal to pacify the boyviki.

MCEVERS: Looking back, what could have worked?

Mr. AUSHEV: (Through interpreter) Long, very patient negotiations.

MCEVERS: For a brief moment it looked as though the crisis wouldn't end too violently.

AGUNDA: (Through interpreter) Before then I hadn't cried once, but after they let out the babies we had some hope. Then I cried. I cried from happiness because I began believing that they would set us free.

MCEVERS: Twenty-four hours later, though, Agunda had lost her hope and lost her mother, who taught first grade. More than 300 hostages died in explosions, fires and a battle that raged for hours between boyviki and Russian troops. To this day no one knows which side started the violence. One thing was clear. The town's cemetery wasn't big enough for so many victims. So a new cemetery was built in this field, where each evening the crows fly overhead and the relatives of the dead come to mourn.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers.

(Soundbite of weeping)

BRAND: We'll hear part two of Kelly McEvers report tomorrow and you can see photos of the Beslan school siege and read about how the incident unfolded by going to our Website, NPR dot org. Our story comes to us from HearingVoices.com.

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