MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin (search) on Friday told mothers of children killed a year ago in a hostage siege at a school in southern Russia that the government could not guarantee complete security for its people in the face of terrorism.
But the Russian leader said that was no excuse for officials to have allowed such a terrible tragedy.
More than 330 victims died after masked, heavily armed guerrillas took over Beslan (search) School No. 1 on Sept. 1, 2004, most in the explosions and gunfire that brought the crisis to a bloody end two days later.
In brief televised remarks, Putin told the delegation from the grief-stricken southern town that no country in the world could provide such protection -- much less one, like Russia, that has undergone so many wrenching changes in the past few decades.
"I must say, immediately, I agree with those who believe that the state is not in a condition to provide for the security of its citizens to the necessary degree," Putin said.
He noted that other countries, such as the United States and Britain, have also suffered huge terrorist attacks and suggested that their law enforcement bodies, too, were in part responsible.
The mothers and other relatives of victims of the school hostage tragedy flew to Moscow from Beslan on Friday for the long-demanded meeting to tell Putin of their grievances.
"He can't comprehend what we've been through. He's a father. I want to tell him what we've been through," Susanna Dudiyeva, the head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee (search) who lost her 13-year-old son in the school seizure a year ago, told The Associated Press this week.
The Mothers' Committee demanded the meeting to air its members' protest of the government's handling of the tragedy -- both the botched rescue operation and the subsequent investigation, which they mistrust.
But when the invitation for a Kremlin meeting finally came, many were stunned and angry that Putin had chosen the first anniversary of the siege for what they suspected was more a political gesture than an attempt to hear their grievances.
Some relatives spent Thursday night -- the first night of the three-day mourning period -- in the gutted gymnasium where rebels had herded more than 1,100 hostages on the first day of school last year.
The assault on the school stunned Russia and prompted Putin to make sweeping political changes. Across the country on Thursday, schools started their usually festive opening day ceremonies with a moment of silence.
"Today, millions of people both here and abroad, all who know about this terrible catastrophe and who have a heart, of course remember this nightmare," Putin said Thursday, speaking at the Kuban State Agriculture University (search).
Putin was roundly condemned in Beslan for flying into the town the day after the hostage crisis ended but avoiding encounters with the victims' relatives.