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Russians Demand a Strong Hand

Tens of thousands of people in Moscow turn out during national mourning for school hostages. Many back tough security measures.

September 08, 2004|David Holley and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — About 130,000 people packed a square near the Kremlin on Tuesday, with tens of thousands more turned away, in an emotional rally to express revulsion against terrorism and backing for tougher security measures.

Huge banners and hand-held placards expressed the crowd's sentiments: "We Will Not Go Down on Our Knees Before Scum" and "We Will Defeat the Enemy."

Energized by a nation's sorrow for the 335 victims who died in last week's school hostage seizure in the southern Russian town of Beslan, the officially sanctioned rally carried a strong tone of support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and his tough stance on terrorism. It also had an undercurrent of racism against people from predominantly Muslim republics in Russia's Caucasus region, with some participants saying darker-skinned people should be driven out of Moscow.

The rally was held as part of two days of nationwide mourning, while residents of Beslan continued burying their dead, seeking to identify disfigured bodies and frantically searching for missing relatives.

"Our hearts brought us here," said Galina Akhmedova, 49, a Moscow city government employee given time off to attend. "We can't just go out and fight somebody, but we can hope the entire country and the entire world will hear that we are against terror, and maybe the government will take more resolute measures."

Konstantin Raikin, a popular actor and stage director, declared to the crowd, "We are faced with a very terrible enemy: so-called people driven by a satanical, alien, hostile and destructive philosophy. They are aliens, extraterrestrials."

Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov called for tougher measures against terrorism, expressing some criticism of the country's secret services and police.

"We must ask the power structures when at last there will be efficient struggle, resolute struggle, a struggle which must end in a victory," Luzhkov said. "We must ask our power structures why the weapons that the terrorists were using in Beslan were the most sophisticated and of Russian origin. Where did they get them?"

Luzhkov criticized the national government for not allowing Moscow to tighten its already strict rules on police registration for temporary residents from other parts of Russia. More severe controls "would make it possible to protect Moscow, and any other city for that matter, from terrorist encroachments," he said.

Viktor Novikov, 40, who carried a Russian flag at the rally, said he opposed the presence in Moscow of Muslims from Russia's Caucasus region, which includes war-torn Chechnya. A group of right-wing youths exchanged Nazi-style salutes, and one said in English, "I am Ku Klux Klan Russia."

The school seizure was carried out by militants who appeared to be linked to guerrillas fighting for an independent Chechnya. People from the Caucasus and Central Asia make up a significant portion of the work force at Moscow markets and construction sites.

A top Muslim leader spoke at the rally against any kind of justification for the hostage-takers' actions. "Terrorists are not Muslims, they are not humans," Damir Gizatullin, deputy chief of the Council of Muftis of Russia, told the throng. "The flames of eternal hell are waiting for those who dared to encroach upon the lives of innocent people, upon the most sacred and precious on the Earth: the lives of our children."

The authorities' rush to organize the rally drew some skepticism, however.

"I think what they're trying to say in this rally is, 'We're giving our consistent support to Putin,' " said Lev Teytelman, 24, a university student who happened to be on a nearby street after the rally ended. "In my opinion, it should be focused on solidarity with the victims, not solidarity with the government."

After the rally, as participants filed into a nearby subway station, a distraught man ran into a restricted street area guarded by police, poured gasoline over his head and body from a plastic container and reached to pull something from his pocket, apparently intending to set himself on fire. Police managed to tackle and save him.

Tuesday evening, NTV television broadcast dramatic footage showing the inside of the school gymnasium and hundreds of hostages during the standoff, which it said had been taken by the assailants. The hostage-takers appeared to be working on the triggers for explosives, with some bundles that looked like bombs hanging from wires attached to basketball hoops. A few pools of blood were on the floor. One man appeared to be holding down the trigger to a bomb with his foot as it was being worked on.

A former hostage, Soslan Dzugaev, told The Times on Tuesday that a makeshift bomb in a 2-liter (about 2-quart) water bottle suspended from the hoops fell to the floor and triggered the disastrous final shootout Friday between hostage-takers and security forces.

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