A bloody trail

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

Russia mourns the death of about 400 people, most of them children, following the terrorist siege of a school in North Ossetia.

in Moscow

TERROR is stalking Russia. Since the third week of August about 500 people have lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the country. The latest incident, in which terrorists stormed a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan and took hostage more than 1,000 people, ended with the death of about 390, the majority of them children. The terrorists, who took control of the school on September 1, demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Earlier, a car bomb explosion in Moscow killed 10 people. On August 24, over 90 people were killed when two aircraft exploded soon after taking off from a Moscow airport (story on page 61). Investigations revealed that both incidents were linked to Chechen terrorists. A shocked Russian public is still trying to digest the ramifications of the widespread violence that has clearly brought the Chechen civil war into their midst.

September 1 was the day many Russian schools reopened after the summer vacation. A large number of parents were present at the Beslan school to attend the festivities marking the first day of school when an armed group of masked men stormed the school, taking over 1,200 children and adults hostage. The attackers then forced everyone into the school gymnasium. Soon after, the school was surrounded by Russian federal forces. The terrorists responded with the threat to kill 50 children for every one of their own killed by the federal forces. Reports indicate that the attackers' demands were unnegotiable - the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya, an end to combat operations in the state and the release of imprisoned Chechen militants. The attackers also demanded the immediate presence of Alexander Dzasokhov, the President of North Ossetia, Murat Zyazikov, the President of Ingushtia, and Leonid Roshal, the doctor who negotiated with Chechen rebels who took over 700 people hostage at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in 2002.

Negotiations went on through the night of September 1, resulting in the release of a group of 26 hostages the next day. By this time a large crowd of parents and relatives of the hostages had collected outside the school awaiting information about the crisis. Reports indicate that the militants refused food, water or medical supplies to the hostages. A released hostage, Zalina Dzandarova, told the Russian daily Kommersant: "At first, senior students were permitted to bring water from the shower room nearby. Soon after that, one terrorist said that because Dzasokhov was not coming to talk to them, no one would get any more water. They also demanded to see Zyazikov and Aslambek Aslakhanov [Russian President Vladimir Putin's adviser on Chechnya]. No more water was given, not even to the children." Another released hostage suggested that the total strength of persons held was about 1,500. The hostage said: "The gym was packed with people. We were divided into groups. Whoever did not feel well was put in the cloakroom. Men were forced to break windows to let air into the gym." The situation inside the gym was grim - the children were dehydrated owing to lack of water and the heat, they were crowded one on top of the other and had to strip to put up with the heat.

Despite the hardline Russian policy of not negotiating with rebels and using negotiations only to buy time before a rescue operation is launched, this time round, because the hostages included children, members of the security forces issued repeated statements that the stress was on ensuring the safety of the hostages.

Negotiations went on till the morning of September 3, when the militants allowed emergency workers to enter the school to help in the recovery of the bodies of dead hostages. This moment proved to be the flashpoint. Minutes later, explosions rocked the school and gunfire was heard as the roof caved in. Crying, terrified, almost naked, and most of them covered with blood, children ran out. The militants opened fire on the running hostages and the security forces stormed the school. Later, over 100 bodies of hostages who died in the explosions and in the crossfire were recovered from the gym. In the days ahead, the casualty figure is expected to rise as many hostages have sustained serious injuries and are battling for their lives in hospital. Moreover, three days after the bloody siege ended, 180 were listed as missing.

PUTIN visited Beslan on September 5. In a televised address to the nation, he admitted failure on the part of the security agencies in tackling terrorism and said that priority would be given to bolster the nation's security. He also spoke about the strong-state status that Russia enjoyed as the Soviet Union. He said: "Today we are living in conditions which have emerged following the break-up of a vast great state, a state which unfortunately turned out to be unable to survive in the context of a rapidly changing world. But despite all the difficulties, we have managed to preserve the core of the colossus which was the Soviet Union." Putin sounded disillusioned with the current situation: "... [W]e called the new country the Russian Federation. We all expected changes, changes for the better. But we have turned out to be absolutely unprepared for much that has changed in our lives.... " He added that "on the whole, we have to admit that we have failed to recognise the complexity and dangerous nature of the processes taking place in our own country and the world in general. In any case, we have failed to respond to them appropriately... We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon. Some want to cut off a juicy morsel from us while others are helping them. They are helping because they believe that, as one of the world's major nuclear powers, Russia is still posing a threat to someone, and therefore this threat must be removed." September 6 and 7 were declared days of national mourning. The Russian Interior Minister for North Ossetia resigned immediately after the incident. Informed sources said that most of the militants who stormed the school, who included at least 10 Arab nationals and some Ingushetians apart from Chechens, were killed.

After the violence of the past three weeks, Putin faces an unprecedented challenge to his presidency. He first came to power four years ago promising to end the Chechen war and bring peace and stability to Russia. Although the President scored in providing a measure of economic stability to the country and in raising its status diplomatically in the world, he is yet to deliver on the security front. Several efforts were made to solve the Chechen problem, two elections were held in a short span of time and two Kremlin-appointed Presidents held the reins of the country. Chechen strongman Akhmad Kadyrov was elected in 2003, but he was killed in a suicide-bombing in May. In the just-concluded election, the Kremlin-backed Alu Alkhanov was elected President. However, the situation in Chechnya has not improved much. Analysts believe that Putin's Chechen policy might have to be redefined. To date Putin has followed a hardline policy - one of concerted military operations and avoiding negotiations - towards the militants. They say that a negotiation process and a thorough reform of the beleagured Russian military needs to be initiated.

Meanwhile, the Caucasus is astir and bleakly reminds one of the troubles in the region in the early 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union. Importantly, militants selected North Ossetia as a target because it is the only pocket of influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in a largely Muslim-dominated Caucasian belt. Moreover, historically the Ossetians have had problems with Ingushetia, which re-surfaced following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The school siege could have been a move to fan the flames of conflict again. The days to come could prove crucial for the stability of both Russia and the Caucasus - President Putin has an unenviable task at hand.

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