January 15, 2008 / 2:05 PM / 10 years ago

Beslan mothers threaten to condemn Putin in court

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Mothers of children seized by rebels at a southern Russia school in 2004 threatened on Tuesday to use a legal action brought by authorities against them to expose President Vladimir Putin’s role in the bungled rescue.

Islamist fighters seized more than 1,000 people in the school in Beslan, triggering a three-day siege that ended in a furious exchange of fire in which 333 hostages were killed. Half of them were children.

Campaigners in Golos Beslana (Voice of Beslan) have criticized top Russian authorities, including Putin, and accuse them of mishandling the hostage crisis and using heavy weapons.

Citing a strongly worded open letter issued by Golos Beslana in November 2005, prosecutors laid extremism charges against the group, which includes women who lost relatives in the siege.

The group could be banned if found extremist.

“We did not start this trial ... We will defend ourselves in court to prove the President’s guilt,” Ella Kesayeva, who co-chairs Golos Beslana, told Reuters by telephone.

“We want to show in public that our statements were not empty talk,” Kesayeva said.

“We will present the court with whatever evidence we have collected against the president.” She did not elaborate.

Many of the victims were killed when a blast wrecked the school gymnasium, where most of the hostages were being held. Officials say they did all they could to prevent loss of life, but the rebels were determined to kill the hostages.

A court in the neighboring region of Ingushetia agreed earlier on Tuesday to transfer hearings on the group’s case to North Ossetia where Beslan is located. Kesayeva said the date of the first court session would be set within 10 days.

The trial, initiated by an Ingush prosecutor, could have aggravated tensions between North Ossetia’s Christian population and the mainly Muslim Ingush that are still simmering after an inter-ethnic conflict in 1992 killed about 200 people and displaced tens of thousands of residents. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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