By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in Moscow
The Russian authorities wasted valuable time deciding how to handle the hostage crisis in Beslan, according to top siege negotiator Ruslan Aushev.
Aushev is a veteran negotiator from the Chechen conflict
Mr Aushev was the only official to enter the school during the siege when he secured the release of 25 of the youngest children and their mothers.
He said that time wasted could have been used to save lives.
Mr Aushev warned that the main task now was to prevent thirst for revenge in North Ossetia spinning out of control.
A former president of Ingushetia - a region bordering North Ossetia in Russia's North Caucasus - Mr Aushev admitted the gunmen who seized School Number One had been hardline extremists.
But he did not believe they had gone to Beslan to die.
Speaking to a press conference in Moscow,
he said he was convinced more hostages might have been freed given time.
The gunmen were insisting on face-to-face talks to pass on their demands but none of the officials they called for went in to meet them.
"For one and a half days, the crisis centre was just guessing what they wanted," said Mr Aushev.
Fears of revenge are high in a region known for vendettas
"It was only when I went into the school that we actually found out. If someone had moved earlier we would have gained time to resolve the situation. We would have had time for more ideas."
The former leader of Ingushetia said it was up to Russian investigators to decide who sparked the violent end to the siege which left more than 300 people dead.
But what he was most worried about was the real possibility of war as a consequence and the loss of many more lives.
Mr Aushev said many Ossetians remain convinced there were Ingush nationals among the gunmen and they are bent on revenge against their neighbours.
If that was allowed to happen once the traditional 40 days of mourning were over, Ruslan Aushev warned, the whole of the Caucasus would be inflamed, dragged into the conflict.
That, he said, was precisely what the gunmen had been hoping for.