MOSCOW – The heavily armed militants behind a deadly school raid in southern Russia passed through a region dotted by checkpoints whose chief purpose is to keep violence from spreading outside the breakaway Chechnya (search) region.
How did they manage? To many people here, suspicion falls on police corruption that could be crippling Russian attempts to fight terrorists.
The school hostage-taking in Beslan (search) and other recent terror attacks illustrate how bribe-taking — particularly in the police and military — provide an opening to terrorists by helping them arm themselves and move around. The military often supplies weapons to the very enemy it seeks to vanquish.
For Russians long used to bribing police officers, public housing managers, even nursery school directors, the corruption allegations aren't surprising.
Yet outrage over the school attack, which left more than 330 dead, has been fueled by reports suggesting that bribery played a role. First, the 30 attackers got through a region dotted with checkpoints without any apparent problem.
Citing police sources, the Russky Kuryer newspaper reported Thursday that two attackers, identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev and Mairbek Shaybekkhanov, had been arrested in 2002 and 2003 but freed after what the paper said was a "substantial" payoff to police.
At an anti-terror rally next to the Kremlin on Monday, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (search) asked furiously why the terrorists had new, high-quality Russian weapons.
Some reports suggest the weapons may have come in part from assaults on police facilities by militants in neighboring Ingushetia (search) in June, including a raid on a police arsenal.
A one-time Ingush policeman, Ali Taziyev, is believed to have led the school seizure and news reports identify him as the suspected leader of the Ingush assaults. Four Ingush police have been arrested on suspicion of assisting the attackers in those raids.
Ordinary people in the region, who endure constant police checks on the roads, are fuming, too.
As Aslanbek Badtiyev, a Beslan resident, put it: "How could they bring these weapons here if they [police] check tomatoes 20 times?"
Even President Vladimir Putin, who has vowed repeatedly to crush the militants, mentioned the topic in an address to the country.
"We have let corruption affect the judicial and law enforcement sphere," he said.
Beslan hostages told journalists that the kidnappers taunted them, saying they had bribed their way past checkpoints. A police spokesman rejected those accusations, saying that the terrorists used back roads that had fallen out of use and weren't patrolled.
The accusations were an echo of the 1995 raid by Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev (search) on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk (search), where some 2,000 people were taken hostage at a hospital. Basayev said later in an interview that his band of fighters had intended to drive to Moscow, but the bribe money ran out.
Russian soldiers are widely believed to be a source of weapons for Chechen fighters; bribes to pass checkpoints in Chechnya are a near-universal practice; the prices for getting identity papers are well-known.
The school shooting followed reports of bribery surrounding the apparent suicide bombings of two Russian airliners that crashed within minutes of each other last month, killing all 90 people aboard.
Police reportedly arrested an illegal ticket scalper at Moscow's Domodedovo airport who helped the Chechen women suspected in the attacks. The Izvestia newspaper, citing law enforcement sources, said the man was a former employee of Sibir airlines, which operated one of the planes.
Bribing Russia's wretchedly paid, poorly trained police and soldiers has long been a necessity for many people, especially in Chechnya, or those who have fled the region.
Marietta Zhidayeva, who has taken refuge from the fighting with relatives in Moscow, has paid bribes to police several times — most recently, $17 three months ago — to go free after being detained during document checks.
"I can't even go out to take out the garbage," said Zhidayeva, 40.
The price list can run to more than $500 for a passport for foreign travel without waiting months or years, and $2,500-$3,500 to obtain Russian citizenship and a domestic passport. Russians have one passport for foreign travel and one as a domestic ID.
"Ordinary people don't have that kind of money; terrorists do," political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin warned on Echo of Moscow Radio.
Russian journalists have claimed that Russian generals in Chechnya profit from illegal sales of oil from the region's oil fields. And in 2000, Russian forces lured several hundred fighters into a bloody ambush by promising safe passage out of Chechnya's capital in return for a $100,000. The fighters apparently considered the offer credible enough to stake their lives on it.
Alexander Golts, national-security expert at the Yezhenedelny Zhurnal magazine, said corruption remains "one of the biggest threats to security in Russia," not least because it alienates people who would otherwise support the government.
"It is useless to count on the support of the population, on them rallying around the state, when that population considers the state to be up for sale," Golts said.