Command failure seen at fault in Beslan massacre
Moscow - Security forces bungled the handling of Russia's worst hostage drama because nobody was in charge and special forces were not ready when the shooting started, security analysts said on Monday.
"It's clear that it was a total mess," leading military analyst Alexander Golts told Reuters. "They were not prepared."
As the death toll from the battle that ended the siege in the North Ossetian town of Beslan rose above 330, Russia's media asked how the vaunted special forces had allowed a two-day standoff to turn into a bloodbath.
Authorities said they were forced to storm the school when the militants fired on hostages who were fleeing in the confusion following two explosions. With no security cordon to keep them back, armed local people pressed forward and were among the first to return fire.
Local troops -- unprepared and possibly short of ammunition -- suddenly found themselves assaulting the school, while special forces moved in only half an hour after the battle began, Golts said.
The newspaper Vremya Novostei said that when the fighting started, two special forces squads from the FSB security service were still discussing assault plans and had not even agreed on approach routes or where the defenders' firing points were.
It said the two squads, Alfa and Vympel -- equivalent to Britain's Special Air Service or the U.S. Delta Force -- suffered unprecedented casualties totaling 10 dead and up to 31 wounded.
Security expert Andrei Soldatov said on Ekho Moskvy radio that the battle began so suddenly that many of the special forces fought without bullet-proof vests.
But local troops were also too close to the school, keen to show the media the scene and avoid the accusations of a cover-up that plagued the Russian government in a previous hostage crisis, the capture of a Moscow theater in 2002, he said.
The disastrous handling of the siege earned a rebuke for the security forces from Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former agent in the KGB, the FSB's Soviet forerunner.
"We have to admit we showed no understanding of the danger of processes occurring in our own country and in the world at large," he said in a televised address on Saturday. "We failed to react appropriately to them and, instead, showed weakness."
SPECIAL FORCES NOT PREPARED
But Golts said he believed that remarks by Putin earlier in the siege might have added to the confusion.
"It's totally my theory, but as far as I understand, when Putin said the school would not be stormed, the special forces stood down and were not prepared for a crucial change in the situation."
Western analysts said a key weakness was the lack of coordination between police, army, paramilitary and special forces each controlled by different ministries or the FSB.
"In a typical area you will probably have interior forces and FSB forces and there will be little coordination between them," said Petter Stalenheim of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
"Something must happen right at the top, to coordinate these structures better," said Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "There are too many of them...and they react in an uncoordinated way."
Rahr described the FSB as a closed, infexible "club" of officials with Soviet mindsets, struggling to adjust from Cold War espionage to fighting terrorism.
"The failings lie in the system, as Putin hinted, which has not been reformed -- or has been badly reformed and built up -- since the fall of the Soviet Union."
But any attempt by Putin to construct a "super-authority" would provoke accusations at home and abroad that he was recreating the KGB, Rahr added.
Among other problems, he pointed to the Russians' inability to infiltrate Chechen militant groups with informants, and the ability of militants to exploit official corruption.
"The problem, as ever in Russia, is in the unbelievable corruption. You can change the leadership of the FSB all you want, but these (insurgents) are fighting not only with weapons. When they infiltrate Russia they have cases or bags full of dollars and they 'buy' any policeman who stands in their way.
"As long as nothing is done on this level and those problems exist, Putin can reform all he wants at the top but it won't work at the lower level."