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Beslan Residents Say Forces Used Grenades

VLADIKAVKAZ -- Federal prosecutors are investigating claims that forces storming Beslan's School No. 1 last September used flamethrowers and anti-tank grenades, weapons that could have dramatically increased the death toll among hostages.

Beslan residents found disposable barrels from a Shmel flamethrower and a Mukha grenade launcher in buildings near the school, Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Mothers of Beslan relatives' group, said by telephone Tuesday.

The Shmel fires compact fuel air shells, while the Mukha is designed to fire anti-tank grenades.

On Monday, a group of the town's residents handed in a used Shmel barrel, a Mukha barrel and several tank shells to the Beslan prosecutor's office, and repeated their concerns that the weapons could have caused some of the more than 330 deaths of hostages -- half of them children -- during the Sept. 1-3 school seizure.

"Maybe these weapons were used to kill my son," one parent, who declined to give his or her name, said Tuesday.

Dudiyeva said residents had found the barrels and shells in November, and had handed them over only now in the presence of a North Ossetian lawmaker, as they distrusted local prosecutors.

None of the forces that stormed the school, including federal commandos, troops and police, has said it used rocket launchers or flamethrowers. The forces have admitted using tanks to shell the school but have said they were fired only after it became clear that all the hostages had either escaped or been killed.

Residents contend that shells fired by flamethrowers, grenade launchers and tanks should have not been used during the storming of the school, as they could have killed many of the hostages.

Prosecutors would not immediately comment on the residents' claim, but said they were investigating whether the weapons should have been used.

"Work is underway to establish the expediency of using such weaponry," Nikolai Shepel, deputy prosecutor general for the Southern Federal District, told reporters in Beslan on Monday.

Shepel said prosecutors already had nine such barrels and had ascertained their "origin," without elaborating. He did not say who had found the barrels.

Dudiyeva said that security forces had handed the barrels over to prosecutors in September after the storming.

Ruslan Tebiyev, one of the residents who handed over the two latest barrels, said residents had handed over similar barrels before, Kommersant reported.

On Sept. 1, a group of militants seized the school, herding an estimated 1,128 children, relatives and teachers into the school's gym. The attackers threatened to detonate bombs if federal troops did not withdraw from Chechnya.

Two days later, two powerful blasts rang out inside the school, causing part of the gym wall to collapse and prompting a combination of federal commandos, troops, police and local vigilantes to storm the building. A total of 317 hostages died during the Sept. 3 storming, according to figures compiled by the Prosecutor General's Office. It has yet to be determined what caused the original explosions inside the school.

Erik Bugulov, North Ossetia's senator to the Federation Council and a member of the parliamentary commission investigating the Beslan tragedy, was present when the evidence was handed to prosecutors Monday. He told Interfax on Tuesday that he hoped the barrels would help determine "what caused the fire" inside the school.

The Shmel flamethrower propels a small bomb that explodes into a ball of fire on impact and is designed to kill people in an enclosed space. Weapons expert Maxim Pyadushkin said the bomb "burns out everything in a 10-meter radius" and could cause a fire.

The barrels have markings and serial numbers identifying the plants that manufactured them, Konstantin Krivorotov, the chief prosecutor on the case, said Tuesday.

Alexander Torshin, head of the parliamentary commission, has said that accomplices of the attackers could have fired the weapons. "Weapons like these were also in the truck that transported the terrorists" to Beslan, Torshin said, Novaya Gazeta reported last month.

Veteran human rights advocate Lev Ponomaryov condemned the use of combat weapons. "It was wrong to use flamethrowers and grenade launchers -- they are weapons of mass destruction," he said. "You cannot use these weapons when you have to free hostages."

But Nikolai Poroskov, a defense and security writer for Vremya Novostei, said the commandos might have had no choice. Federal troops have used debilitating gas or snipers in previous hostage rescue operations, but the attackers in Beslan were careful to hide behind walls, and the children may not have survived if gas had been used, he said.

The barrels and shells could have been planted in an effort to discredit security forces, Poroskov said. Local volunteers who took part in the operation to free the hostages could have used the grenade launchers, he said.

Sergei Prokopov, spokesman for the North Caucasus branch of the Prosecutor General's Office, claimed the handover showed that investigators were working closely with local residents.

But Dudiyeva said the relatives did not trust prosecutors to investigate their evidence, and she said that was why residents agreed to the handover only in the presence of Bugulov.

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky reported from Moscow.

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