- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Many residents of North Ossetia, an Orthodox Christian enclave in Russia’s North Caucasus region, see the Beslan hostage bloodbath as an extension of long-festering rivalries with hostile Muslim neighbors.

The revelation that a suspected ringleader of the school seizure was from neighboring Ingushetia — a largely Islamic ethnic territory with close religious and language ties to Chechnya — sparked angry demonstrations by Ossetians over the weekend.

The Beslan outrage also has heightened tensions with Georgia, Russia’s southern neighbor, coming as Tbilisi has tried to reassert its authority over a separate ethnic Ossetian enclave with close ties to Moscow. Both the Georgians and Ossetians are mainly Christian.

“Two types of conflict can erupt at any moment” in Beslan’s wake, said Igor Torbakov, a regional specialist with Eurasianet, a news service specializing in Caucasian affairs. He said there could be either “an ethnic and religious conflict between Christian Ossetians and Muslim Ingush [or] an ethno-territorial struggle between Georgians and Ossetians.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to blame the incident on international terrorist networks connected to the Chechen separatist movement. But even Mr. Putin has conceded that the unstable mix of ethnic groups and faiths in the Caucasus played a role in the attack.

“Those who have sent bandits to commit this heinous crime have aimed at setting our peoples against one another, intimidating the citizens of Russia and unleashing a bloody feud in the North Caucasus,” Mr. Putin said in a national address this week.

Although huge questions remain about the Beslan plot, Russian investigators say the estimated 32 kidnappers included a mix of Chechens, Russians, Ossetians and Ingush.

Of particular interest is the role in Beslan of the commando calling himself “Magas” — using the name of the Ingushetia region’s capital city.

According to Russian press accounts, investigators now believe Magas was Ali Musaevich Taziev, a former Ingushetian police officer believed to be behind a deadly June raid on police and government targets in Ingushetia. Mr. Taziev is believed to have allied with radical Islamic elements from Chechnya and across the region.

Tensions between North Ossetia and Ingushetia date back at least to the days of Josef Stalin, when the Soviet leader abruptly ceded a slice of Ingush land to the Ossetians to punish what he said was Ingush collaboration with the invading Nazis.

Ethnic Ingush have attempted to resettle the disputed land, and the resulting tensions produced a brief but bloody clash in late 1992 — the first major ethnic clash in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, Ingush residents driven from their homes in North Ossetia remain in refugee camps near the border between the two regions.

The form of Islam practiced by Ingushetia’s Sunni Muslims traditionally has been seen as a relatively tolerant branch of the religion. But the radicalization of Islamic militants in neighboring Chechnya has affected fellow militants in Ingushetia, analysts said, and the two groups have established operational ties.

Ossetians, an ethnic and religious minority in a volatile region, traditionally have seen Moscow as a protector and guarantor of political survival.

The ringleader of the Beslan terrorist strike, authorities now think, was a shadowy figure known to Russian negotiators as “the Colonel.” He is thought to be an aide to the notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, and the strike has been seen by many in Moscow as a bid to export the chaos in Chechnya throughout the region.

But much of the North Ossetians’ ire is directed at the Ingush. Major anti-Ingush rallies were held over the weekend in Prigorodny — the disputed district once part of Ingushetia — and police and Russian troops were out in force the past two days to prevent ethnic violence.

Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station, reported yesterday that Ingush families were already fleeing Prigorodny, fearing retaliation for the Beslan attack.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Gomiashvili, on a Washington visit, denounced the Beslan massacre but also noted that Russia has been playing “dangerous games” across the region, including its support of separatist movements in South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia.

Russian authorities have long complained that Chechen rebels have found refuge in Georgia, and several Russian lawmakers said this week they suspected a Georgian role in the Beslan incident.

Mr. Gomiashvili said tensions with Russia are “running very high” in the wake of the massacre.

“Unless the Russian Federation reconsiders both its internal and foreign policies, I’m afraid a few other Beslan tragedies are on the way,” he said.

Sharon Behn contributed to this report.

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