Beslan Soldiers Borrowed Bullets

APWomen weeping at the Beslan school gym Friday. Mourners have left piles of food and water, which attackers denied the hostages.
BESLAN, North Ossetia -- Soldiers fled as shooting broke out in the spasm of violence that ended the Beslan school siege, and unprepared special forces were forced to borrow bullets from armed locals.

As Beslan buried more victims a week after the siege ended, residents are questioning authorities' handling of the three-day standoff.

Not a single room at the school was left untouched by the attack. Down the hallways, shrapnel from grenades and blood spattered the walls, along with hundreds of bullet holes both inside and outside the building.

Town children have been collecting rocket-launcher tubes used in the battle and left scattered around the school.

Residents said they had rushed to the scene after hearing officials drastically understate the number of captives at 350 -- when they knew there were really more than 1,200 inside.

Locals feared it meant authorities would storm the building and then lie about how many people were killed, also possibly provoking the terrorists.

"From the start, the [authorities] weren't doing things right," said Artur Belikov, 35, attending a wake at the graves of his relatives Albina Budayeva, 38, and her 3-year-old daughter, Valeria.

He said armed locals charged ahead of special forces troops to prevent them from moving in.

But Katya Tsikayeva, 69, also at a wake at Beslan's cemetery, argued that troops should have immediately stormed the building. "Why did they wait a second day, a third day -- to let so many die?"

Another Beslan resident who called himself Robert said he arrived soon after the siege started and stood guard throughout the entire standoff.

He demurred when asked how he got the gun he used, since private citizens are not normally allowed to keep weapons.

Robert said rescue workers were retrieving bodies that lay outside the school Sept. 3 when an explosion inside sent children fleeing. Terrorists began shooting them in the back -- prompting the forces gathered outside to open fire.

He said conscript soldiers fled as the fighting began. "They were worried about their own lives," said Robert, 31, who had several relatives inside.

Locals handed their clips of ammunition to elite troops who did not have enough bullets, Robert said. "They weren't ready," he said of the special forces.

The arrival of some of the elite troops also was delayed because they did not have bulletproof vests, residents said.

The siege left 11 soldiers from Russia's elite special forces units dead, according to official statements -- the largest number killed in a single battle. Some reports have said they were shot in the back by overanxious locals at the scene.

Gena, an Interior Ministry warrant officer from a nearby region who was not involved in the battle, also said it appeared authorities had no plans for what to do when mayhem broke out. Visiting the school Friday, he said troops should have taken the children away from the school before returning fire.

"If they already had two days, they needed to think of something," said Gena, who had six relatives among the hostages and also gave only his first name.

Lamenting the corruption and lapses in duty that allowed the attackers to bring their arsenal of weapons to the school, residents have appealed for the truth to be known about the circumstances that made the attack possible as well as how it all ended.

"No one really knows the truth of what happened, and it won't be known for a long time," Belikov said.