Tuesday, September 7, 2004

JERUSALEM — Russia is turning for help against terrorism to a country with long experience, signing a memorandum with Israel yesterday pledging the two countries will work more closely in fighting the scourge.

The increased sophistication of the terrorists in Chechnya and growing signs of an Arab role in last week’s school attack in Beslan, Russia — where 120 victims were buried yesterday — appear to have overcome Moscow’s concerns about offending its Arab allies by cooperating with Israel.

Funeral processions jammed the rain-filled streets of Beslan on the first of two days of official mourning yesterday, while other anguished parents searched for missing children. At least half of the more than 330 dead in explosions and a shootout Friday at the school are children.

Reports from Moscow suggested the attackers — many of them Arabs — were able to hide explosives and weapons in the school during the summer while posing as construction workers.

An Israeli spokesman said yesterday’s memorandum with Russia aimed to “encourage in every possible way the development of broad bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation in fighting international terrorism.”

Israeli radio said cooperation is expected to move quickly into operational areas, with exchanges of intelligence information, mutual visits by anti-terror teams and the joint development of models for dealing with different kinds of terror threats.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a telephone conversation Sunday on continued cooperation on matters relating to security, intelligence and humanitarian issues.

“We must concentrate our political and intelligence efforts to destroy terror,” Mr. Sharon was reported to have said.

Russian authorities were reeling at the realization that the attack in Beslan had been planned for months and that the terrorists had been able to smuggle explosives into the school virtually under the noses of police, who had a station 200 yards away.

The terrorists acted after having determined that the school was due for renovations to its gymnasium floor, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted a law-enforcement official as saying.

“The bandits were able to bring into the school a large quantity of weapons, ammunition, equipment and explosives, under the guise of planks, cement and other building material, enough to defend the seized place for a long period,” the official said.

Other reports have suggested al Qaeda-linked terrorists may have taken charge of the Chechen insurgency, sidelining indigenous leaders such as fugitive Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. As many as 10 of those involved in last week’s attack were Arabs, Russian officials said.

In Jerusalem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who signed the cooperation memorandum with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom during a long-scheduled visit yesterday, welcomed Mr. Sharon’s offer of help while striving to hold the door open to Russia’s Arab allies.

“We appreciate the very strong readiness of the Israeli people to help Russia at this hour, and this will certainly strengthen the counterterrorist coalition these days,” Mr. Lavrov said.

But, he said, “I believe the key to the solution of the problem is to bring all countries to fight terror, and I can assure you that in addition to our very close counterterrorist cooperation with Israel we have similar counterterrorist cooperation with Arab countries.”

Russia’s acceptance of Israeli help was seen in Jerusalem as a vindication of its own tough policies against the Palestinians. Many think Mr. Putin was speaking of Israel when he called on Saturday for a national mobilization against terror.

“Events in other countries,” Mr. Putin said, “have shown that terrorists meet the most effective resistance in places where they not only encounter the state’s power, but also find themselves facing an organized and united civil society.”

Israel’s ability to cope with terror during the past four years of the Palestinian intifada, despite close to 1,000 deaths, is regarded as impressive by many in Russia.

Israel would like to win Russia’s support for the barrier it is building on the West Bank to guard against infiltration into Israel, as well as for the frequently harsh measures it takes in the Palestinian territories to suppress militants.

Israeli officials said lessons learned by their country in the battle against terror could be useful to Russia.

In 1974, Palestinian gunmen infiltrating from Lebanon took over a high school in northern Israel with students inside and issued demands for the release of prisoners being held by Israel.

Israeli special forces broke into the building, and in the ensuing battle 21 students and the gunmen were killed.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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