Putin vows tough response to ‘all-out war’ by terrorists
September 4, 2004
BESLAN, Russia – A shaken President Vladimir Putin made a rare and candid admission of Russian weakness Saturday in the face of an “all-out war” by terrorists after more than 350 people – nearly half of them children – were killed in a hostage-taking at a southern school.
Putin went on national television to tell Russians they must mobilize against terrorism. He promised wide-ranging reforms to toughen security forces and purge corruption.
“We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten,” he said in a speech aimed at addressing the grief, shock and anger felt by many after a string of attacks that have killed some 450 people 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 or clear plastic body bags on the pavement at a morgue in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, where the dead from the school standoff in the town of Beslan were taken. In some open bags lay the contorted, thin bodies of children, some monstrously charred.
In Beslan, people scoured lists of names to see if their loved ones survived the chaos of the day before, when the standoff turned violent Friday as militants set off explosives in the school and commandos moved in to seize the building.
Beslan residents were allowed to enter the burned-out husk that was once the gymnasium of School No. 1, where more than 1,000 hostages were held during the 62-hour ordeal that started Wednesday. The gym’s roof was destroyed, windows shattered, walls pocked with bullet holes.
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Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said 323 people, including 156 children, were killed. More than 540 people were wounded – mostly children. Medical officials said 448 people, including 248 children, remained hospitalized Saturday evening.
Dzgoyev also said 35 attackers – heavily-armed and explosive-laden men and women reportedly demanding independence for the Chechen republic – were killed in 10 hours of battles that shook the area around the school with gunfire and explosions.
Putin made a quick visit to the town before dawn Saturday, meeting local officials and touring a hospital to speak with wounded. He stopped to stroke the head of an injured child.
But some in the region were unimpressed, as grief turned to anger, both at the militants and the government response.
Marat Avsarayev, a 44-year-old taxi driver in Vladikavkaz, questioned why 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, Putin stressed that security officials had not planned to storm the school – trying to fend off potential criticism that the government side provoked the bloodshed. He ordered the region’s borders closed while officials searched for anyone connected to the attack.
“What happened was a terrorist act that was inhuman and unprecedented in its cruelty,” 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 people have been killed in the past two weeks in violence. Two planes crashed nearly simultaneously on Aug. 24, killing 90 people, and a suicide bomber killed eight people in Moscow on Tuesday. Chechen separatists are suspected in both attacks.