Beslan School Hostage Crisis

The Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania is home to many Russian military bases, and a major city there is Beslan (population = approximately 35,000). In early September 2004, a hostage crisis in Beslan resulted in the death of at least 386 children, adults, rescuers and hostage takers in what became known as the Beslan Massacre. This situation originated as a terrorist attack during the Second Chechen War, in which the perpetrators aimed to capture world attention and direct it to the plight of the Chechens. The attackers also expected that it might lead to ethnic violence in the Caucasus and result in spreading conflict throughout the region.

The origins of the hostage crisis lay in the events that had taken place in Chechnya since some Chechens declared independence in 1991 under Dzhokhar Dudayev. This event led to the First Chechen War, as the Russian Federation sought to retain its control over Chechnya, an area rich in oil. The war lasted from 1994 until 1996, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered a ceasefire, leading to a peace treaty in 1997. By this time Chechnya had suffered badly,with at least 35,000 civilians dead, as many as 7,500 Russian soldiers dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000 Chechen separatists killed. Although the fighting had stopped, the region became lawless, with hundreds of kidnappings for ransom, and clashes with the leaders of the increasingly militant Chechen separatists embracing fundamentalist Islam. This instability led to the Second Chechen War, which saw the destruction of much of the rest of Chechnya.

Many of the Russian attacks on Chechens were launched from bases in the North Ossetia-Alania. Though most of the fighting took place in Chechnya, some Chechens had launched attacks in Moscow and other places in September 1999. These assaults resulted in the deaths of 300 civilians as apartments were bombed, some of which collapsed. Some of the bombers were arrested and jailed by Russian courts in January 2004. It seemed likely that the Chechens would attack elsewhere, but few expected that the target would be a school.

The school chosen for the attack was Comintern Street S.N.O. Some sources claimed that the Ossetian militia had used this school before the First Chechen War as a site to intern civilians from Ingushetia, a small Russian republic closely connected with Chechnya. Some media reports stated that some of the Ingush civilians were held in the school’s gymnasium, which may have also helped influence the choice of the school as a target. Russian government officials have denied claims that some Chechens disguised themselves as repairmen and hid weapons and explosives in the school during the summer holidays.

The Chechens decided to take over the school on September 1, the first day of the Russian school year. This date is known as the “Day of Knowledge” because both new and returning students are accompanied by their parents, and often grandparents and other relatives, in a series of events held at schools to familiarize the entire community with the school curriculum and plans. This practice meant that there would be large numbers of adults at the Beslan school, which normally housed approximately 800 students and 60 teachers and support staff.

The Chechen separatists–men and women–who stormed the building may have arrived in two groups. It was subsequently estimated that as many as 32 participated in the assault. They seized control of the school, firing into the air with machine guns. Some 50 people managed to flee the school, while others hid in various rooms, particularly the boiler room. Armed police and one armed civilian fired at the attackers, killing one of them and wounding two others. Ultimately, the terrorists managed to get between 1,100 and 1,200 hostages–children, adult relatives, and teachers–and herd them into the school gymnasium. There they ordered everyone to speak in Russian only, shooting dead a man who translated the order into Ossetic, the local language. Another student’s father was shot dead for refusing to kneel for the attackers, and another was killed when he was found using a mobile telephone; the terrorists had ordered everyone to hand over their telephones. The terrorists also isolated 17 adult males whom they thought might pose a physical threat to them, and shot them all. One of these men was badly injured and survived, and another managed to escape.

By this time, the Russian police and army had surrounded the school, albeit not very effectively. Many local people had arrived at the site and were anxious about relatives held at the school, and some of these newcomers were armed. To stop the authorities from storming the gymnasium, the terrorists put explosive devices around the room and stated that they would kill 50 hostages for each Chechen killed by the authorities. They were also anxious to prevent the police from using gas to subdue the attackers, as they had done in the Moscow Dubrovka Theater in October 2002, and smashed the windows to thwart this tactic. Although the terrorists wanted Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, to negotiate with them, the Russian Federal Security Service (F.S.B.) refused to let him do so. Consequently, they planned on how to storm the building. By the end of that day the United Nations Security Council, at the request of Russia, demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages of the terrorist attack.”

On the second day of the hostage crisis, the terrorists refused to allow food, water, or medicine to be taken in to the hostages, and would not permit authorities to remove the dead bodies. They attacked the adults and children, while the F.S.B. remained uncertain what to do. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, made a short statement about the authorities wanting to rescue the hostages, but did not elaborate. By this time, two police headquarters were dealing with the crisis– one that was operating publicly, and another, secret one that was actually making the key decisions.

Ruslan Arushev, a former Soviet Army general and a one-time president of Ingushetia, arrived at the school in the afternoon of the second day. The terrorists released 15 children and 11 nursing mothers to him. Arushev was also given a videotape of the conditions in the gymnasium: The hot weather and the large number of people in the room meant that some people, especially many children, took off some of their clothes. However, without water or food, both children and adults started fainting.

That afternoon terrorists fired grenades at a nearby police car, but the Russian authorities held their fire. It was clear that the government was hoping that the terrorists would tire first. It also seems possible that some of the Chechens were taking drugs to remain alert, resulting in them becoming unpredictable and sometimes hysterically shouting at crying children.

On the third day, a number of local politicians arrived on the scene, a few stating that they were ready to offer themselves as hostages. Aslambek Aslakhanov, an adviser to the Russian president, and a former local police general, managed to get the names of some 700 well-known Russians who were willing to take the places of the children. It was agreed that Aslakhanov would meet with the terrorists at 3 p.m. Two hours before the planned meeting, two ambulances were allowed into the school grounds to remove the dead bodies. However, as they approached the school, an explosion occurred and shooting started, with parts of the gymnasium roof collapsing on the hostages below. Because many of the hostages were so weakened by not having eaten or had any water, many were not able to escape. Later investigations suggested that the explosion was a terrorist bomb that detonated prematurely.

Because the shooting took the authorities by surprise, they were not in a position to return fire immediately. As the terrorists started detonating bombs, the Russian troops stormed the building, with many hostages being killed as they tried to escape. After two hours of shooting, the Russians managed to take control of most of the school compound. One group of terrorists tried to hold out in the basement. Another group of 13 managed to break through the police cordon and enter a nearby building, which was subsequently destroyed by Russian tanks and flamethrowers. One suspected terrorist was lynched by a local crowd, and one was captured alive hiding under a truck. When Putin ordered the borders of North Ossetia closed the following day, rumors circulated that some of the terrorists had escaped.

On September 4, Vladimir Putin appeared at the Beslan hospital where hundreds of people were being treated. It is believed that some 186 children, 148 adult hostages, several members of the security forces, and most of the terrorists were killed–for a total of at least 386 killed. Because of the high death toll, the Russian authorities came in for criticism on a number of fronts. Apart from their unwillingness to negotiate (though the shooting of hostages rendered such discussions very problematic), they did not have sappers or a bomb-disposal group on hand to defuse the bombs in the gymnasium, nor did they arrange for the fire brigade to be close by when the school was stormed. However, their biggest failure was that they did not recognize that many of the adult hostages and most of the children were so weakened, both emotionally and physically, by the 2V2 days as hostages that they did not have the energy to escape.

The terrorist aims of inciting a racial war did not succeed, but the event did lead to many members of the Russian public turning on Chechens. In addition, opinion polls revealed that many Russians started to support the death penalty for terrorism. Moreover, as many as one-third of Russians whose opinions were sought wanted all Chechens banned from major cities.

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