Many schools celebrate September 1 as the Day of Knowledge, children hurry back to their classes after a long summer, girls are wearing big white bows and boys are carrying flowers. There’s a joyful atmosphere of anticipation in the air. It’s a happy time of reunion with friends and teachers.
But not for thousands of residents of the city of Beslan. 10 years ago, on September 1, 2004 a gang of armed Islamist thugs attacked School #1 and took hundreds of children hostage, refusing to hold talks or accept water and medicine from local authorities. After three long days, Russia’s FSB SOC Alpha and Vympel units stormed the school, clearing it of terrorists and rescuing those who were still alive.
Rossiya Segodnya spoke to Col. Yury Torshin, a retired officer of the FSB SOC Alpha unit. Col. Torshin took part in freeing hostages in School #1 in Beslan and then Nord Ost in Moscow. He was awarded five military orders and three combat medals. Rossiya Segodnya found out why Islamists chose to attack children and what price the Alpha unit officers paid to rescue hostages.
Colonel, on behalf of RIA Novosti, myself and all Russians I’d like to express our gratitude to you for your courage and heroism during the rescue of hostages from the Beslan school. How did it all begin?
Col. Torshin: Thank you. It all began 10 years ago, on September 1, 2004, during an assembly celebrating the first day of school, like the ceremony that all schools have on that day. Over 60 militants forced entry into the schoolyard in a Gaz-66 military truck, surrounded the assembly participants and forced them into the school. Teachers, children and parents were taken hostage.
On the same day, the FSB SOC Alpha and Vympel units were alerted, taken to Beslan Airport and rushed to the school. We we arrived we saw a large crowd of parents, other relatives and simply witnesses of this incident. The police cordoned off the school perimeter and we began drafting a plan for the rescue of the hostages. We set up headquarters at the Beslan municipal administration building. The North Ossetian president, prime minister and other top officials were all there with numerous FSB operatives, police officers and Interior Ministry troops.
As procedure dictates, initially we started negotiations with the terrorists to find out their demands and try to rescue the hostages without bloodshed. But the terrorists refused to talk and locked up the majority of hostages in a mine-laden gym. Then they started making ultimatums – to end the war in Chechnya and withdraw troops. They were completely unyielding in their position and the negotiating process produced virtually no results. We asked if we could give them water and medicines for the children but they said no. Then to intimidate everyone, they shot about ten hostages dead and simply threw their bodies out of the first floor window. The Emergencies Ministry came into play and we managed to persuade the terrorists that those bodies must be removed. They allowed three of the ministry’s employees to approach the school and get the bodies. They fired shots regularly from the first and second floors. These guys from the ministry had a very difficult job and we tried to give them cover as much as we could but one of them was eventually wounded.
As far as I understand, the talks produced no results?
Col. Torshin: Realizing the gravity of the situation, on the second day we repeated our request to bring in food and water to the hostages. It was hot, the temperature was 25 degrees, but they refused again. At that point Ruslan Aushev (the first President of the Republic of Ingushetia and Chairman of the Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee at the CIS Prime Ministers’ Council since 1991 – ed.) joined in the process. He said he would go inside and talk with the terrorists. A corridor was organized for him; he was allowed to enter the school’s grounds and talked with them, but eventually they denied his request. I cannot say what he discussed with the militants and with whom he talked exactly but as he left the school, Aushev brought out three or four kids.
You said that you were rushed from the airport to the school. So, you had to conduct the operation without any preparations?
Col. Torshin: No, we prepared for practically two days. We were negotiating with the terrorists, trying to persuade them that their conduct was cruel, that they should not behave like this, telling them that we were prepared to listen to their demands. The only thing we did right away was to surround the entire school so that nobody could escape. We did some operational work, studying the positions and the school’s plan for a potential assault. We conducted all this work in cooperation with operations units, North Ossetia’s FSB and its central administrative office.
Could you please tell us in more detail about your role in this operation?
Col. Torshin: There were about 30 men in the assault group I headed. My task was to enter the school through its main entrance. At first, we seized a small single-storey building opposite the entrance, where primary school students had their classes and then came into the school through the main entrance. Practically the entire first floor – about 75 meters long – was under our control. Every assault group had its own assignment. The building was stormed from three or four points.
Did the terrorists put up strong resistance when you entered the school?
Col. Torshin: The storming began on command although initially it was planned to start later. Naturally, everyone was ready for it. There was resistance from all sides, especially the second floor, where many of them were. They started firing at us and killed ten SOC officers. My unit had no losses. Some men sustained shrapnel wounds but thankfully nobody was seriously hurt. The mission was accomplished.
You weren’t injured yourself, were you?
Col. Torshin: No, I was injured only during the Nord-Ost hostage crisis but I made a full recovery.
Is it true that SOC officers covered grenades with their bodies and protected hostages from bullets?
Col. Torshin: Yes, there were several such cases on the second floor. One SOC officer was killed when he threw himself on a grenade. Two more shielded hostages from bullets and shrapnel with their bodies.
What was the SOC’s main objective?
Col. Torshin: The main objective was to rescue the hostages, preferably without losses. This is always the main goal. As for eliminating the terrorists, this is never the task because their behavior during the assault is unpredictable.
There were reports in the media that School №1 was convenient for the terrorists in terms of tactical planning. Is this true?
Col. Torshin: I think this is how the media presented it. Every school is convenient for such attacks: it has stone walls and hostages can be used as a shield. This is what the militants did. There are dozens if not hundreds of such schools. This particular school was chosen because there were children and because they were holding a celebration. There were many other reasons for this. Needless to say, the terrorists planned this operation very thoroughly.
Some media also wrote that weapons and ammunition could have been brought into the school in advance. Was that the case?
Col. Torshin: Speaking about the Nord-Ost siege, I can tell you that weapons had been brought in beforehand but I cannot say whether this also applies to Beslan because terrorists arrived in a truck and could have brought all the ammunition and explosives with them. As you know, only one terrorist survived. He tried to escape when the hostages were being rescued but the locals identified him and we took him alive. Initially, two terrorists survived but rightly or wrongly the other one was finished off by the crowd. We captured one alive because we had to find out the whole story.
Did he tell you what you needed to know?
Col. Torshin: Not much. He just said the operation had been planned in advance: the terrorists didn’t act haphazardly. He said he was small fry, just an ordinary militant, not a leader. He couldn’t say who planned this terrorist attack. His explanations were fairly vague.
What could you say about the organization of the rescue mission in general? How did you work together with the Emergencies Ministry and medical professionals?
Col. Torshin: All of them did a great job. They walked side by side with us under fire and rendered all the assistance that was needed. The locals also helped but they mostly performed secondary tasks. Many carried out the wounded, all those who were alive. Organization was excellent; we had no complaints about anyone. As for the results of the rescue mission I can tell you this: We were satisfied that the terrorists were finally destroyed but there were human losses too and that was the worst thing. It was tragic that we lost so many innocent people and good officers.
Was it possible to accomplish this rescue mission faster, without waiting for two days?
Col. Torshin: Certainly not. First we had to carry out some operational procedures and try to resolve the crisis peacefully. An instant operation was out of the question. There were hundreds of people in the school building and losses could have been much heavier.