WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) denounced the attack on a Russian school in which more than 350 people were killed as part of a global struggle with extremists.
"There really are no free passes in this struggle, this war," Rumsfeld said Tuesday. "No free passes for countries, no free passes for individuals."
But the State Department, while joining in condemnation of last week's attack, said Russia ultimately must hold political talks with rebellious Chechen leaders who are determined to break away from the Russian Federation.
Stepping around an angry declaration by Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) ruling out negotiations, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Tuesday, "All parties including the Russian Federation have been looking for a political solution to the crisis in Chechnya."
The contrasting emphasis given by the Pentagon and the State Department appeared to reflect conflicting levels of confidence in the use of diplomacy to counter terror.
In a way, it was a replay of the Pentagon's impatience with diplomacy before the Iraq war and Powell's advice to President Bush to appeal to the United Nations for support before using force to depose President Saddam Hussein (search).
Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference that the terrorism that struck Russia, which included attacks on two aircraft and at a subway station, underscored that there were people in many parts of the globe "determined to alter the behavior of the rest of the world."
"This is a global struggle between extremists and people who want to be left alone to live free lives," he said. "We saw vividly the extremes to which terrorists are willing to go to achieve their ends."
Meanwhile, the State Department differed with Putin, saying only a political settlement could end the crisis between Russia and the breakaway region of Chechnya. The department also left open the possibility of U.S. meetings with Chechens who are not linked to terrorists.
In an interview Monday with a group of foreign journalists and academics, Putin rejected Western calls for negotiations with Chechen rebel representatives, according to Britain's Guardian and Independent newspapers.
"Why don't you meet Usama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" the Guardian quoted Putin as saying sarcastically.
"You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child-killers?"
Putin said foreigners should have "no more questions about our policy in Chechnya" after the attackers shot children in the back, and said the Chechen cause was aimed at undermining all of southern Russia and majority-Muslim regions of the country.
Yet State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday, "Our view on the overall situation has not changed." That is, he said, ultimately "there must be a political settlement" over Chechnya.
He said U.S. officials had met with Chechens with a variety of views in the past, although "we do not meet with terrorists." There may be more meetings in the future, though none are planned, he said.
Responding to Russian suspicions that the terrorist group that seized the school in Beslan included Arabs with ties to the Al Qaeda terror network, Boucher said the Bush administration had no definitive information.
Later, at a news conference, Powell said Putin apparently objected to a past visit of Chechen officials to the State Department. He said it was "part of our way of keeping informed about the situation in the region."
But, he said, "Where we are now absolutely united is in condemning this horrible, horrible action that took place in this small town."
"Terrorism of this kind has no place in the world," Powell said.
Earlier, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage signed a book of condolences at the Russian Embassy.
Boucher said that in response to a Russian government request, two C-130 cargo planes had flown medical supplies worth about $580,000 to Russia and planned an additional flight from Italy. The supplies had been stockpiled in Germany. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow released in Moscow $50,000 in emergency assistance, he said.