Thursday, 10 January 2008

Beslan siege group says faces trial over campaign

Reuters, by Dmitry Solovyov

MOSCOW, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Russian prosecutors have laid extremism charges against campaigners who say senior security officials bungled a 2004 school hostage drama in which hundreds of children and adults died, the group said on Thursday.

Islamist insurgents seized more than 1,000 people in a school in Beslan, southern Russia, starting a three-day siege that ended in carnage. Half the dead were children.

Campaign group Golos Beslana (Voice of Beslan) which is led by women who lost relatives in the siege, said prosecutors had filed the charges over a 2005 appeal the group issued to politicians in Europe and the United States.

The trial is to start on Monday in Nazran, capital of the Russian region of Ingushetia, the group said on its Internet site Beslan is in the neighbouring region of North Ossetia.

"It is self-evident they are carrying out an order from Moscow ... They may now declare our organisation an extremist one and shut it down altogether," Ella Kesayeva, who co-chairs Golos Beslana, told Reuters by telephone.

"What do Ingush prosecutors have to do with a public organisation registered in North Ossetia?" she said.

"We are a thorn in the flesh for authorities because we are holding an investigation of our own and point to the culprits of the tragedy, including top-level officials," Kesayeva said.

Ingush prosecutors declined to comment. A local human rights activist in Nazran told Reuters that the judge due to hear the case had confirmed the time and venue of the trial.

Campaign groups accuse officials of negligence and a cover-up over Beslan and say senior officials, including in the security services, should stand trial over their role in the tragedy.

In its open letter in November 2005, the group said the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin, was hiding the truth to protect top officials blamed by Beslan mothers for use of heavy weapons in a chaotic rescue attempt.

Gunmen seized over 1,000 children and parents at a ceremony in Beslan to mark the new school year in September 2004. A total of 333 hostages died in the siege.

Many of the victims were killed when a blast wrecked the school gymnasium, where most of the hostages were being held. Officials say they did all they could to prevent loss of life, but that the rebels were determined to kill the hostages.

"We believe that tanks and flame-throwers fired on the school at a time when the hostages were held there. We believe our children were deliberately killed," Kesayeva said. Kesayeva's daughter, aged 12 at the time, survived the hostage drama, while her sister lost two children and her husband in the siege.

Beslan is in the turbulent North Caucasus region in southern Russia, near Chechnya where Russian forces have fought two wars against separatist rebels and from where the violence often spills over into neighbouring regions.

Putin built his power, first as prime minister and then as president, on a campaign to overthrow a Chechen rebel government and restore Kremlin control.

The trial could aggravate tensions between North Ossetia's Christian population and the mainly Muslim Ingush that are still simmering after an inter-ethnic conflict in 1992 killed about 200 people and displaced tens of thousands of residents.

(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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