- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

BESLAN, Russia — A shaken President Vladimir Putin made a rare and candid admission of Russian weakness yesterday against an “all-out war” by terrorists after more than 340 persons — nearly half of them children — were killed Friday in a hostage-taking at a southern school.

Mr. Putin went on national television to tell Russians that they must mobilize against terrorism and promised wide-ranging reforms to toughen security forces and purge corruption.

“We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten,” he said in an address aimed at addressing the grief, shock and anger felt by many after a string of attacks that have killed about 450 persons in the past two weeks, apparently in connection with the war in Chechnya.

Shocked relatives wandered among row after row of bodies lined up in black plastic or clear body bags on the pavement at a morgue in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, where the dead from the school standoff in Baslan were taken. In some open bags lay the contorted, thin bodies of children, some monstrously charred.

In Baslan, other relatives scoured lists of names to see if their loved ones had survived the chaos of Friday, when the standoff turned into violence, with Islamist militants setting off explosives in the school and commandos moving in to seize the building.

Baslan residents were allowed to enter the burned out husk that was once the gymnasium of School No. 1, where the more than 1,000 hostages were held during the 62-hour ordeal. The gym’s roof was destroyed, windows shattered and walls pocked with bullet holes.

Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said 323 persons, including 156 children, were killed. More than 540 persons were wounded, mostly children. Medical officials said 448 persons, including 248 children, remained hospitalized last evening.

Mr. Dzgoyev also said 35 attackers — heavily armed and explosive-laden men and women who reportedly were demanding independence for Chechnya — were killed in 10 hours of battles that shook the area around the school with gunfire and explosions after 1 p.m.

Mr. Putin made a quick visit to the town before dawn, meeting local officials and touring a hospital to speak with wounded. He stopped to stroke the head of one injured child.

But some in the region were unimpressed, as grief turned to anger, both at the militants and at the government response.

Marat Avsarayev, a 44-year-old taxi driver in Vladikavkaz, asked why Mr. Putin and other politicians didn’t “even think about fulfilling the [militants’] demands to save the lives of the children. Probably because it wasn’t their children here.”

During his visit to Beslan, Mr. Putin, trying to fend off any potential criticism that the government had provoked the bloodshed, stressed that security officials had not planned to storm the school. He ordered the region’s borders closed while officials searched for everyone connected with the attack.

“What happened was a terrorist act that was inhuman and unprecedented in its cruelty,” Mr. Putin said in his televised speech later. “It is a challenge not to the president, the parliament and the government, but a challenge to all of Russia, to all of our people. It is an attack on our nation.”

Including the school disaster, more than 450 persons have been killed in the past two weeks in violence. Two planes crashed nearly simultaneously on Aug. 24, killing 90 passengers, and a suicide bomber killed eight persons in Moscow on Tuesday. Chechen separatists are suspected in both attacks.

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