- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region could explode into violence if tensions raised by September’s murderous attack on a school in Beslan are not addressed, a leading Russian security expert warned yesterday.

On the 10th anniversary of Russia’s first attack on separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, Evgeniy A. Khailov, deputy chief of anti-terror operations at the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), Russia’s internal security arm, said the Beslan terrorists were clearly hoping to export Chechnya’s war throughout the region.

“Yes, indeed, there is still a possibility for armed conflict beyond Chechnya,” Mr. Khailov said during a Washington visit.

“That was one of the objectives the terrorists had when they attacked Beslan,” he said. “They were trying to pit all the ethnic peoples of the North Caucasus against one another.”

Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has taken responsibility for the attack, which left an estimated 341 hostages and Russian security personnel dead, including nearly 200 schoolchildren. Russian officials say that 31 of the 32 attackers were also killed in the grisly climax of the siege Sept. 3.

But many in North Ossetia, the mainly Orthodox Christian republic where Beslan is located, blamed the attack on ethnic Ingush from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

The Ingush, a Muslim people closely related to the Chechens, and the Ossetians have clashed repeatedly over land and refugee issues, and fought a brief war in 1992.

The FSB’s Mr. Khailov said officials in Moscow have been working hard to head off new ethnic clashes, enlisting local sports and religious figures to calm tensions as the investigation into the attack proceeds.

Mr. Khailov and Aslambek Aslakhanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special adviser on Chechnya, were in Washington for talk with Bush administration officials on the Chechen stalemate and on the larger war on terrorism.

Despite continued bloodshed and criticism from Russian and international human rights groups, Mr. Aslakhanov contended that the situation in Chechnya has “taken a dramatic turn for the better” in the past two years.

He said the Chechen resistance has split into about a half-dozen factions, from radical Islamists such as Basayev to the more moderate Aslan Maskhadov, the republic’s former president. Mr. Maskhadov has asked for direct talks with Moscow on ending the war, but Mr. Aslakhanov said the Beslan attack showed how little influence the moderate rebel leader now has.

“He’s clearly not in charge,” Mr. Aslakhanov said. “As a man, as a father, as a leader, he should have used every bit of authority he had to try and stop [the Beslan crisis], and he didn’t.”

But Mr. Maskhadov’s supporters say the Kremlin’s refusal to negotiate has only strengthened the hand of more radical, violent elements in the Chechen resistance.

Human rights groups also dispute Russian claims that casualties and human rights abuses are declining in Chechnya. Private groups say as many as 4,000 civilians have disappeared in the Muslim republic since intense fighting resumed in 1999.

Mr. Khailov gave new details of the three-day Beslan crisis during his Washington visit and defended the presence of Ossetian militia forces in the chaotic shootout that ended the siege.

He said some of the terrorists objected when they learned that the target of their mission was an elementary school. The leader of the group quelled the mutiny by detonating bombs on “suicide belts” strapped around the waists of some of the female attackers.

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