Published September 04, 2004
BESLAN, Russia – A shaken President Vladimir Putin (search) made a rare and candid admission of Russian weakness Saturday in the face of an "all-out war" by terrorists after more than 340 people -- nearly half of them children -- were killed in a hostage-taking at a southern school.
Putin went on national television to tell Russians they must mobilize against terrorism. He promised wide-ranging reforms to toughen security forces and purge corruption.
"We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten," he said in a speech aimed at addressing the grief, shock and anger felt by many after a string of attacks that have killed some 450 people in the past two weeks, apparently in connection with the war in Chechnya (search).
Shocked relatives wandered among row after row of bodies lined up in black or clear plastic body bags on the pavement at a morgue in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia (search), where the dead from the school standoff in the town of Beslan were taken. In some open bags lay the contorted, thin bodies of children, some monstrously charred.
In Beslan, people scoured lists of names to see if their loved ones survived the chaos of the day before, when the standoff turned violent Friday as terrorists set off explosives in the school and commandos moved in to seize the building.
Beslan residents were allowed to enter the burned-out husk that was once the gymnasium of School No. 1, where more than 1,000 hostages were held during the 62-hour ordeal that started Wednesday. The gym's roof was destroyed, windows shattered, walls pocked with bullet holes.
Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said 323 people, including 156 children, were killed. More than 540 people were wounded -- mostly children. Medical officials said 448 people, including 248 children, remained hospitalized Saturday evening.
Dzgoyev also said 35 attackers -- heavily-armed and explosive-laden men and women reportedly demanding independence for the Chechen republic -- were killed in 10 hours of battles that shook the area around the school with gunfire and explosions.
Putin made a quick visit to the town before dawn Saturday, meeting local officials and touring a hospital to speak with wounded. He stopped to stroke the head of an injured child.
But some in the region were unimpressed, as grief turned to anger, both at the terrorists and the government response.
Marat Avsarayev, a 44-year-old taxi driver in Vladikavkaz, questioned why Putin and other politicians didn't "even think about fulfilling the [terrorists'] demands to save the lives of the children. Probably because it wasn't their children here."
During his visit to Beslan, Putin stressed that security officials had not planned to storm the school -- trying to fend off potential criticism that the government side provoked the bloodshed. He ordered the region's borders closed while officials searched for anyone connected to the attack.
"What happened was a terrorist act that was inhuman and unprecedented in its cruelty," Putin said in his televised speech later. "It is a challenge not to the president, the parliament and the government but a challenge to all of Russia, to all of our people. It is an attack on our nation."
Including the school disaster, more than 450 people have been killed in the past two weeks in violence. Two planes crashed nearly simultaneously on Aug. 24, killing 90 people, and a bomber killed eight people in Moscow on Tuesday. Chechen separatists are suspected in both attacks.
Putin took a defiant tone, acknowledging Russia's weaknesses but blaming it on the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign foes seeking to tear apart Russia and on corrupt officials. He said Russians could no longer live "carefree" and must all confront terrorism.
Measures would be taken, Putin promised, to overhaul the law enforcement organs, which he acknowledged had been infected by corruption, and tighten borders.
"We are obliged to create a much more effective security system and to demand action from our law enforcement organs that would be adequate to the level and scale of the new threats," he said.
An unidentified intelligence official was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the school assault was financed by Abu Omar As-Seyf, an Arab who allegedly represents Al Qaeda in Chechnya, and masterminded by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.
Also, the Federal Security Service chief in North Ossetia, Valery Andreyev, said Saturday that investigators were looking into whether terrorists had smuggled explosives and weapons into the school and hid them during a renovation this summer.
It was still unclear exactly how the standoff fell apart into bloodshed at 1 p.m. on Friday. Officials say security forces were forced to act when hostage-takers set off explosives. But some questioned that version.
The terrorists seized the school on the first day of classes Wednesday, herding hundreds of children, parents who had been dropping their kids off, and other adults into the gymnasium, which the terrorists promptly wired with explosives -- including bombs hanging from the basketball hoops. The packed gym became sweltering, and the hostage-takers refused to allow in food or water.
One survivor, Sima Albegova, told the Kommersant newspaper she asked the terrorists why the captives were taken. "Because you vote for your Putin," one terrorist told her, she said.
Another freed hostage said a terrorist told her, "If Putin doesn't withdraw forces from Chechnya and doesn't free our arrested brothers, we'll blow everything up," according to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.
Russian officials said the violence began when explosions were apparently set off by the terrorists -- possibly by accident -- as emergency workers entered the school courtyard to collect the bodies of hostages killed in the initial raid Wednesday.
Diana Gadzhinova, 14, said the terrorists ordered her and other hostages to lie face down in the gymnasium as the bodies were collected.
"They told us that there were going to be talks," she was quoted as telling Iszvestia. Others also told of how the terrorists appeared to be confused and surprised at the initial explosions.
Hostages fled during the blasts, and the terrorists shot at them, prompting security forces to open fire and commandos to move in, officials said.
The explosions tore through the roof of the gymnasium, sending wreckage down on hostages and killing many. Many survivors emerged naked, covered in ashes and soot, their feet bloody from jumping barefoot out of broken windows to escape.
With families gathering for wakes for the dead Saturday, some were vowing vengeance.
"Fathers will bury their children, and after 40 days [the Orthodox mourning period] ... they will take up weapons and seek revenge," said Alan Kargiyev, a 20-year-old university student in Vladikavkaz.