An armed gang of around 17 militants burst into a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, on September 1 seizing children and parents as hostages. The incident has plunged Russia into a hostage crisis reminiscent of the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002. Early reports indicate a link to troubles in neighboring Ingushetia and Chechnya, with possible demands for the release of militants held in Ingushetia and the withdrawal of the Russian army from Chechnya.
Given the recent twin attacks on two Russian airliners and a suicide bombing outside a metro station in Moscow, President Putin is under particular pressure to resolve the crisis with minimum loss of life, and to avoid making any compromise with the demands of the militants. Indeed, cutting short his holiday to return to take charge of the escalating crisis, as well as dispatching his Interior Minister and head of the Security Service (FSB) to the scene, denote the seriousness of the situation and the extent to which he is willing to take personal responsibility in securing progress in Russia’s tense security environment. He can immediately draw comfort from a message of support received from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the staunchest ally of the United States in the global war on terror, whose categorical denunciation was swift: “No cause can justify such wicked acts of terrorism. My thoughts, and the thoughts of the British people, are with you and the Russian people at this difficult time.” It may be one of the few aspects of the crisis from which the Russian leader may draw comfort, since its handling is made more complicated by the presence of children among the hostages and reports that the militants are prepared to begin killing them (Interfax; ITAR-TASS, September 1).
Details as to the exact nature of events remain difficult to verify, with conflicting reports on the number of hostages (between 120-350) and the number of casualties resulting from the initial attack on the school. A group of heavily armed men and women, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, burst into the morning assembly at the school, as children gathered at the start of the school year. Some parents and passers-by were caught in crossfire as the militants exchanged gunfire with police and security forces. Demands were soon made for talks with regional leaders, as the situation stabilized.
Russian security forces surrounded and sealed off the school and assisted in moving some children to safety, though none appear to have been released by the captors. Children were allegedly placed in windows as human shields in an attempt to prevent Russian Special Forces from storming the building. Kazbek Dzantiyev, head of the regional Interior Ministry, said the militants threatened to kill 50 children for every one of themselves killed, or 20 children in retaliation for injuries. RIA reported the school gymnasium had been mined, and a local police officer suggested the hostages had been herded into the gymnasium, making any rescue attempt more dangerous. According to Colonel-General Nikolai Rogozhkin, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Interior Troops, all necessary anti-terrorist teams were deployed around the school. Negotiations continued into Thursday morning (RIA News Agency, Interfax, ITAR-TASS, NTV, September 1).
Russian media have given the crisis widespread coverage, with program schedules interrupted by the breaking news. Yet many questions relating to the unfolding incident remain unanswered. How long it lasts, how decisive Putin is perceived by the Russian public, the potential loss of life, and use of Special Forces in ending the standoff, all have possible implications for the Kremlin’s policies towards Chechnya. However, critics of Putin’s current attempts to stabilize the Chechen situation blame the crescendo of violence on the August 29 Chechen presidential election, which saw the Kremlin’s candidate claim victory, but offers little hope of building a political process to resolve the conflict.
There is little doubt, should Putin give the order, that the military and security forces are capable of resolving the crisis: but at what cost? Children being used as hostage touch an emotional chord among the public, but if the Russian government can handle the aftermath successfully it may present an opportunity to further demonize the Chechen separatist cause. The Nord-Ost theater crisis in Moscow in 2002 dragged on for several days, which allowed questions to emerge regarding the authorities’ willingness to take decisive action. This experience, as well as the technical process for arriving at a coordinated plan to conduct an anti-terrorist operation, may well prove catalysts for decisive action.
Putin finds himself in the unenviable position of pursuing a campaign in Chechnya that no longer holds popular support in Russia, while trying to explain the increasing violence and facing calls to protect the children among the hostages. In the long term, he may also recognize that the Chechen secessionist cause could be damaged by the hostage crisis. Blair’s phrase, “No cause can justify such wicked acts of terrorism,” may form the basis of yet further efforts to equate the “counter-terrorist” campaign in Chechnya with the war on terror.