MOSCOW – Ten of the estimated 30 militants who seized a school in southern Russia have been identified and six were from Chechnya, security officials said Thursday, drawing a strong connection to the Chechen insurgents who have been fighting Russian forces for years.
None were Arabs, undercutting the government's contention that Arabs were involved in the hostage-taking last week in the North Ossetian town of Beslan (search), which ended in gunfire and explosions that killed more than 350 people, many of them children.
According to the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, the other four militants who have been identified came from Ingushetia, which is sandwiched between North Ossetia and Chechnya (search) and was targeted in brazen coordinated attacks against police that killed 90 people in June. The presence of Ingush raiders threatens to inflame long-standing tensions between Ingush and ethnic Ossetians, who are the majority in the republic.
President Vladimir Putin and Russian investigators have said about 10 of the roughly 30 attackers were Arabs, but authorities have not publicly provided evidence of the assertion. Officials who spoke Thursday made no mention of Arabs being among the militants.
Russian officials repeatedly have cast the military campaign in Chechnya as part of a war against international terrorism — a battle they say Western countries have hindered by granting asylum to Chechen figures and questioning Kremlin policy in Chechnya.
To push the point that Russia is a victim of international terror — and not just of violence spawned by the Chechen conflict, which critics say Kremlin policies have aggravated — Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City when al-Qaida suicide attackers struck the World Trade Center in 2001.
"When our Western partners urge us to rethink our policy and tactics in Chechnya, I would advise them not to interfere in Russian internal matters — which they do by granting asylum to terrorists who are directly to blame for the tragedy of the Chechen people," Lavrov said after the meeting.
He did not name specific countries, but Russia was particularly angered by Britain's granting of refugee status to Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, and by U.S. asylum for Ilyas Akhmadov, who Maskhadov named his foreign minister while he was Chechnya's president in the late 1990s.
In comments published Thursday in the newspaper Vremya Novostei, Lavrov said: "Granting asylum to people involved in terrorism — and Russia has documented evidence of this — not only causes us regret but also effectively undermines the unity of the anti-terrorist coalition."
"We are far from accusing the leaders of major countries ... of deliberately preserving this double standard," he said. "But the inertia is still very strong."
Giuliani said that when Americans mourn the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the third anniversary Saturday, they will also think about victims of "this most current act of terrorism," referring to the school seizure.
"Even though these are things that you hope and pray don't happen and you realize that are very tragic, this will bring our people together, because we have been through something very similar," Giuliani said.
Meanwhile, Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a joint statement that the hostage seizuremarked "a new dimension of the threat posed to all humankind by international terrorism," the Kremlin said.
"Thirty-six months after the attacks in the United States and six months after the terrorist acts in Madrid, the Russian Federation has become a target of vile attacks by international terrorism," said the statement, which was posted on the Kremlin Web site. "We are united in (the conviction) that terrorism must be fought jointly everywhere."
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said President Bush has asked his top advisers to determine how authorities would handle a similar attack on an American school to ensure adequate coordination in the "unlikely but possible" chance of such an event in the United States.
"How the government and the various entities within the Russian government responded to the incident is not known at this time," Ridge said in an interview Thursday with Associated Press reporters and editors. "Preliminary reports suggest there wasn't the kind of coordination and leadership and direction and somebody being in charge."
North Ossetia's Deputy Health Minister Teimuraz Revazov said Thursday the death of a victim overnight brought the toll among hostages to 329. Security officials have said 11 members of their ranks were killed, and prosecutors have said 30 attackers died.
Putin told the nation Saturday the school attack was meant to inflame the North Caucasus, an ethnic patchwork that includes North Ossetia, Chechnya and several other mostly Muslim republics. He promised to create a new system of security in the region along Russia's southern flank.
At the Kremlin Thursday, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told Putin that directors have been appointed for anti-terrorist commissions in republics across the region, including Chechnya.
Few details were given about how the commissions would work, but the announcement showed the Kremlin's concern that inefficiency and corruption had undermined security and that violence could spread in the North Caucasus.
Each commission will be headed by a senior Interior Ministry officer with the regional political leader as his deputy in many cases and a special task force of 70 men, Nurgaliyev said. He said the commissions will coordinate police, security and military forces in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
Russia has been beset by terror in the past two weeks, suffering three attacks that have killed more than 400 people.
The attacks — the downing of two airliners apparently by explosions, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station and the school seizure — prompted officials to offer a huge cash reward for information leading to the killing or capture of top Chechen rebel leaders.
Russia brushes off criticism that its policies in Chechnya and the brutality of its troops there feed resentment that boosts support for the insurgents, focusing instead on claims the militants are trained by international terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.
Putin won support from German leader Gerhard Schroeder for his portrayal of Russia as a victim of international terrorism. In a joint declaration, the two placed the recent attacks alongside Sept. 11 and the Madrid bombings and said the school raid marked "a new dimension of the threat posed to all humankind by international terrorism."