Russia to Launch Inquiry Into School Siege

President Vladimir Putin (search) agreed Friday to a parliamentary investigation of the bloody school hostage siege in southern Russia, less than a week after he reportedly dismissed the idea by saying it might turn into "a political show."

The move by Putin seeks to deflect criticism after he had earlier ruled out a public probe of the standoff in Beslan, which the government has blamed on Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev (search).

Russian officials have also repeatedly have cast the military campaign in Chechnya as part of a war against international terrorism.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) said Friday that it was too soon to say whether al-Qaida played any role in the school attack, but he said there was an "absolutely" a connection between rebels in Chechnya and the terror network.

"I mean, they've been trained in the same training camps in Afghanistan," he said at the National Press Club in Washington. "So there's no question but that there's a linkage between the Chechen terrorists and al-Qaida. But I can't say that about this event because the investigation's just in its early stages."

In a meeting shown prominently on state-run television, the lawmaker who heads Russia's upper house of parliament, Sergei Mironov, told Putin the Federation Council would aim to form an investigative commission.

Putin agreed, telling Mironov in the Kremlin meeting that "we are thoroughly interested in receiving a complete, objective picture of the tragic events connected with the seizure of the hostages."

The president reportedly said only an internal inquiry would be conducted into the crisis that ended Sept. 3 in a chaos of gunfire and explosions and killed at least 330 hostages, warning that a parliamentary probe could turn into "a political show."

Some Putin critics had doubts about a parliamentary investigation.

"Putin has shown that he doesn't consider it necessary to share with the society any information on Beslan," said Alexander Golts, a military observer for the magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal.

"Up until now, nothing in the activity of the upper chamber — or the lower one for that matter — could suggest that these people are capable of any fundamental decisions that would force the leadership to rethink its policy," he said.

Putin's initial resistance to a public inquiry had sparked criticism, notably from Ruslan Aushev, a former regional leader and political rival who helped negotiate the release of 26 hostages from the school.

"I think the Federation Council and the Duma are obliged to take part in the process," the newspaper Noviye Izvestia quoted Aushev — the former president of Ingushetia, which borders North Ossetia — as saying. The Duma is the lower chamber.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Basayev directed the hostage-taking raid.

"I know for certain, that Shamil Basayev directly managed this operation," Lavrov said, according to the transcript of an interview with the Al-Jazeera television that was released by the Foreign Ministry.

Other Russian officials had said evidence linked Basayev to the attack, but Lavrov's statement was the clearest accusation against the rebel leader.

Lavrov also said there was no reason to doubt earlier statements by Russian officials who said some of the hostage-takers were Arab.

"The information that there were Arabs is being corroborated," he said, adding that identifying bodies has been a slow process. So far, officials have not provided evidence publicly to support claims that about 10 of the hostage-takers were Arabs.

Regional security officials told The Associated Press on Thursday that 10 of the roughly 30 militants who seized the school had been identified, and that four were from Ingushetia, a region sandwiched between North Ossetia and Chechnya. The other six were from Chechnya, the officials said.

Amid fears that the tragedy in North Ossetia could touch off ethnic violence in the North Caucasus, regional figures — including renowned orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev — appeared on state television to ask grieving, angry people not to give in to hatred.

"That would only give joy to those who staged the crime," he said.

Tensions between Ossetians and Ingush, which erupted into a conflict that killed hundreds of people in 1992, have been fueled by suspicions that Ingush were among the attackers.

In the aftermath of the Beslan siege, Russia's lower house of parliament said it would consider proposals to strengthen Russian security. Among the proposals is a color-coded alert system similar to that adopted by the United States after the 2001 attacks.

Russian officials say Western countries have hindered their fight against international terrorism by granting asylum to Chechen figures and questioning Kremlin policy.

Russia is 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, whom Maskhadov named his foreign minister while he was Chechnya's president in 1999.

On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. and British embassies in Moscow to demand the extradition of Zakayev and Akhmadov. Chanting "Shame, shame," demonstrators brandished signs including one claiming "The U.S. is sponsoring the war in the Caucasus."

In an Associated Press interview, Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to ease Russia's irritation with his suggestions that ultimately there must be political dialogue to resolve the war in Chechnya. Lavrov had accused Western countries of interfering in Russia's internal affairs.

"How this problem of Chechnya will ultimately be solved is something for the Russians to work out," Powell said. "With respect to terrorist attacks against innocent Russians, we stand united with the Russians that they have to deal with this in the most powerful, direct, forceful way that they can in order to protect their citizens."

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 in Moscow and the school raid — prompted officials to offer a $10 million reward for information leading to the killing or capture of Basayev and Maskhadov.