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Admitted militant goes on trial in Russian school hostage case


VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia - A man who has admitted being one of the militants who stormed a school in nearby Beslan last September, leading to the deaths of 343 hostages, entered a courtroom yesterday to face charges of terrorism and murder.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, a 24-year-old ethnic Chechen, appeared more sheepish than sinister standing in a black jogging suit and athletic shoes with no laces, as prosecutors accused him of a long list of crimes. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Kulayev has acknowledged being one of the guerrillas who stormed a school in Beslan on Sept. 1, seizing more than 1,300 hostages. But he has insisted that he fired his weapon only into the ceiling and never sought to kill anyone.

Prosecutors say witnesses saw Kulayev firing into crowds of hostages who survived explosions set off by the guerrillas, hostages who were scrambling out of the school and its gymnasium. The dead included parents, teachers and 186 children who had gathered for ceremonies marking the first day of school.

In court, Kulayev's voice rose barely above a whisper when he was asked for his name and other information. From time to time, he glanced at the cameras aimed at the bars of his holding pen in the courtroom.

But he avoided the gaze of the 28 relatives of victims, mostly women dressed in black with black headscarves. Two of the spectators sat sobbing and holding photographs of their dead loved ones.

Kulayev's lawyer, Albert Pliyev, who has been licensed to practice law for only two weeks, appeared anxious. Asked by reporters whether he feared reprisals from victims of relatives, he said: "Of course there is fear."

Kulayev, who reportedly was dragged out of a basement not far from the school after the carnage, is the only known survivor of 32 guerrillas. Most were killed in firefights with security forces and vigilantes in the hours after three explosions on the morning of Sept. 3. At least one hostage-taker was kicked to death by an enraged mob.

The guerrillas held more than 1,300 people for three days and executed all the male hostages. Children saw adults shot in front of them and were given little or nothing to drink during the siege.

The attack was part of a wave of violence in late August and early September that has been called Russia's 9/11. The school seizure also threatened to ignite a wider conflict in Russia's Caucasus region by fanning ethnic and religious hatred.

Most residents of Beslan are ethnic Ossetians and Christians. The attackers, most of them from the neighboring Russian republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, were Muslim.

Relatives of the victims squeezed onto narrow benches in the courtroom yesterday, including Susanna Dudiyeva, 44, one of the leaders of the Mothers of Beslan committee. Her 13-year-old son was killed and 19-year-old daughter was wounded in the siege.

In an interview before the trial, Dudiyeva said that regional and federal government officials should be held accountable for failing to protect Russia from attacks.

"Not a single official, not the president, not anyone, was held responsible," she said, sitting in the Mothers of Beslan Committee offices, a block from the wreckage of the school. "And that is why the tragedy happened. That is why the terrorists and bandits could do what they did. Because they follow where corruption goes un- punished. That's why we think the government is to blame."

Authorities allowed only Russian television reporters and photographers in the second-floor courtroom. But a reporter from The Sun was permitted inside the courtroom to take pictures and witnessed the first hour of the proceedings.

Several women called for Kulayev to speak up when he whispered his responses to questions by Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov.

Kulayev did not enter a plea and was given little chance to speak. Nor did he seem eager to do so. He sat first on a narrow wooden bench at the back of his cell. Only later, when summoned forward, did he move to a bench toward the front.

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel, dressed in a blue military-style uniform, began reading a statement of facts about the case. He spent several minutes reading while standing at the prosecution table, until Judge Aguzarov discreetly motioned him to sit down.

As Shepel continued with his detailed account - which included details such as the license plate numbers of the cars used by the hostage-takers - relatives of victims in the courtroom grew impatient.

After a break, some of the spectators began shouting at Kulayev, as he brushed his hair out of his eyes.

"Stand up! Look over here so we can see your eyes," one woman yelled. Another man called the defendant "a beast!"

Several women shouted that the reading of the charges was taking too long and that Kulayev could not have committed all the crimes attributed to him. Aguzarov pleaded with the relatives to calm down.

"I would ask you to stay, I would like to talk with you," he said. When the outbursts continued, he adjourned the court until tomorrow.

Shepel later told reporters that the reading was "a difficult process." But he blamed the drawn-out process on the complexity of the case.

Rita Sidakova, a reed-thin woman in a black sweater, paced outside the courthouse. Her views reflected those of many of the relatives inside.

"It's just too much a paper process, a paper court," said the woman, who lost a 9-year-old daughter, her only child, in the siege.

"They are being too humane with him," she said, referring to the defendant. "And because of this humane attitude, many more terrorist acts happen. We feel he won't be punished. He will go to jail but he will die of natural causes. He will live. He will eat. Why should he live such a life, while our children are in their graves?"

During the reading of the charges yesterday, Shepel said the leader of the guerrillas was Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed by Russian forces on March 8.

Maskhadov's supporters had described him as a moderate who opposed violent attacks. But Russian authorities have described Maskhadov as the leader of a campaign of violence that in recent years has included bombings of passenger planes, trains, Moscow subway cars and a rock concert.

The guerrillas in Beslan had demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of comrades captured and jailed in connection with an earlier attack on the city of Nazran, in neighboring Ingushetia. The warlord Shamil Basayev, an Islamic militant, has claimed responsibility for the assault on the school.

But many relatives of the victims and others here say the authorities should also be on trial. Yesterday, several pointed the finger at Aleksandr Dzasokov, president of the Russian republic of North Ossetia, which includes Beslan.

"Let Dzasokov be punished," said Zinaida V. Kokayeva, standing outside the courtroom. "We don't need to listen to this fool who sits accused in the court. Let Dzasokov come."

One elderly woman, whose daughter died in the siege, came up and whispered to Kokayeva: "Thank you for saying what you said."

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