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Putin Says Russia Showed Weakness; School Toll at 340

The president pledges to get tough on terrorists. Weapons may have been stashed before takeover.

September 05, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BESLAN, Russia — Attackers who seized more than 1,000 hostages in a provincial school may have smuggled in a large cache of weapons, possibly disguised as construction equipment, in the weeks before the takeover, Russian officials said Saturday as the death toll rose to 340, nearly half of them children.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, in a nationally televised address, called the hostage crisis that ended in explosions and gunfire Friday "an act unprecedented in its inhumanness and cruelty" and "an attack against our country."

In an extraordinary admission of responsibility, Putin said that inadequate spending for defense since the collapse of the Soviet Union and corruption in the judicial system had left the nation vulnerable.

"We could have been more effective if we had acted professionally, and at the right moment ... [but] we proved unable to react adequately," Putin said in the speech, the first to address a spate of attacks that have killed more than 450 Russians in the last two weeks. "We showed ourselves to be weak, and the weak get beaten."

Earlier in the day, Putin flew briefly to this shattered town in southern Russia, visiting a hospital where the wounded were being treated.

On Saturday, authorities displayed the bodies of 26 hostage-takers in the schoolyard here. Officials had said Friday that 20 militants had been killed, three arrested and three were at large; the reason for the discrepancy was unclear. Authorities believe that the militants had ties to rebels from Chechnya, the nearby republic that has been engaged in a separatist war with Russian forces for most of the last 10 years, or from neighboring Ingushetia, where violence has also broken out. Russian officials said 10 of the fighters were Arabs, but provided no proof.

Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, elected Chechnya's president during its brief period of autonomy in the mid-1990s, condemned the hostage seizure Saturday.

Russian authorities have publicly linked the school takeover to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, an Islamic radical who is believed to have masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Russia during the last several years.

As authorities struggled to determine how the 26 hostage-takers were able to wage an intense gun battle with elite Russian Spetsnaz commandos for nearly 10 hours, a Federal Security Service official said investigators believed the attackers might have sneaked in weaponry before seizing the school.

"Part of the weapons and ammunition were brought in and hidden in advance on the territory of the school where the terrorist act took place -- we are carefully looking at this possibility," said Valery Andreyev, head of the bureau's office in the republic of North Ossetia, where the attack occurred.

From the beginning, investigators have been perplexed by how the attackers managed to bring in so much firepower. With several former hostages now saying that they were forced to dig up the floor at the school to uncover a cache of weapons, suspicion has turned to remodeling work there over the summer.

A worker who entered the building after the crisis ended also reported seeing hollow walls, once temporarily covered in stucco, that had been gouged out during the standoff to serve as sheltered firing positions.

Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said Saturday that authorities had not linked the takeover and the reconstruction contract "in any way."

But Lev Dzugayev, an aide to North Ossetia's president, said investigators believed the hostage-takers would not have been able to quickly carry in the amount of weaponry and ammunition used in Friday's battle.

"Such firepower capacity seems unlikely without any prior preparations," he said.

In response to reports that a Chechen construction company may have had a contract to remodel the school over the summer, Dzugayev said investigators were "looking into the period of time when the school building was being repaired."

"We're trying to investigate how this remodeling was being conducted, who did it, when and so on -- everything related to it. And I hope that we will get an answer to that question," he said.

In his speech, Putin said the collapse of communism had left Russia with weak defenses, which could be blamed on inadequate defense funding and border protection.

"In general, we need to admit that we did not fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world," Putin said.

The president's admission came with a pledge to get tough on terrorism by stepping up law enforcement efforts and mobilizing society to resist terrorism and ethnic conflict.

"The terrorists think they are stronger than us," he said. "They think they can frighten us with their cruelty, paralyze our will and sow disintegration in our society. We have a choice, it would seem, a choice to either resist them or to agree to their demands and give in, let them destroy and plunder Russia in the hope that they will finally leave us in peace.

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