We received this report from Moscow (see below) shortly after the storming of the school in Beslan in North Ossetia. It provides some information which has not been made evident by the media here in the West. It highlights the divide between the ordinary people of Beslan and the authorities. The parents and relatives of those being held had no confidence in the ability of the authorities to defend their loved ones. They were also demanding that the government give in to the demands of the terrorists, but the government invented the excuse that their demands "were not clear". The government also initially played down the numbers being held, whereas the families knew that the number was far higher. The authorities were trying to play down the problem. All this reveals a very high degree of cynicism on the part of the Russian government, and of Putin himself.
Having said this, the attitude of the hostage-takers was a barbaric one. They treated these poor people abominably while they were holding them, and then were prepared to shoot at fleeing, desperate children. This event has struck the minds and hearts of millions of people around the world. How could anyone not be moved at the scenes of dead and wounded children, at the desperate parents trying to find their young ones?
The unfortunate thing is that all this will now be exploited by the Putins of this world, and by the Blairs and Bushes too. This barbaric act of individual terrorism will not serve the cause of the Chechen people. It will be used to step up measures of repression inside Russia. The Russian army inside Chechnya has been facing severe difficulties. No doubt Putin will use this recent event in Beslan to justify stepping up his war. This also will not in any way make the country safer for ordinary working people. The operations of the Russian army in Chechnya over a decade now have destroyed the region. Grozny, the capital, is a shell of its former self. Many Chechens have been killed. This will only serve the increase the reservoir from which the terrorists can recruit. It will be an ongoing spiral of attacks by the Russian army, followed by more acts of individual terror, with one feeding off the other. It will also, no doubt, be used by Bush in his election campaign to justify his own "war on terror", which of course is no such thing. As everyone now clearly knows, the war in Iraq is not about fighting terrorism.
As this article shows, the people of the Caucasus want peace, not war. If power remains in the hands of the Russian oligarchy, war will continue. And the manoeuvres of US imperialism in the region will not help, especially in Georgia. The great powers are not really interested in the lives of ordinary working people. What they are interested in is power, privileges, control of resources and profits. Caught in the middle of this conflict are the working people. The barbarism of the last few days will, unfortunately, be repeated. It can only be eliminated once and for all when the system that breeds it is overthrown. Only when the workers have full control over their own destinies will people be able to live in peace. (Editor's note)
A loud explosion and an exchange of gunfire announced the security forces intention to take the school by force at around 12:00 local time, ending the three day hostage crisis. A group of twenty or so hostages, including children, tried to escape, and were fired at by the hostage takers. First aiders who went to the rescue of the wounded were also shot at. On the ground tanks and ambulances crowded the streets, while above them helicopters circled the school.
Panic gripped the hostages' relatives waiting outside as the following hours were filled with chaos. What was at stake was not the official total of over 300 children and adults, but the real figure of between 1-1,500 hostages, according to the mothers with young babies who were released yesterday.
The tension mounted when further blasts ripped through the school, apparently the work of the Special Forces to allow hostages, who had stripped to their underwear in cramped conditions and 40 degrees centigrade, to escape. Some 200 ran for cover, risking further sniper fire. Reports spread that a ceiling had collapsed in the sports hall where the hostages were kept.
Anxiety mounted for the remaining hostages still inside. The security chiefs declared the situation was under control, but desperate relatives brushed this claim aside and rushed through the school grounds in search of the captured schoolchildren.
Word spread that among the escaped hostages 13 or so terrorists had also run for cover. Two female suicide bombers apparently escaped dressed as nurses. Shoot-outs were reported in the south of the city and in a nearby tower block where the terrorists were thought to be. Every police officer in North Ossetia was called upon to block every road and railway line leading out of the region.
Local armed militia in their hundreds took the search for the terrorists into their own hands. State Russian radio described unconfirmed reports of locals executing one terrorist they found fleeing the school.
At 15:00 news agency reports on the internet claimed that the crisis was over. But sporadic gunfire was heard for some hours more as soldiers rooted out remaining terrorists suspected to be still hiding in the building.
The site gazeta.ru initially quoted a source in the security forces who gave the number of casualties as "150 – minimum," but the real figure later turned out to be much higher. At least 330 were killed, nearly half of them children
The role of the authorities
In a repeat of the response of the families during the Nord Ost hostage crisis in Moscow nearly two years ago, pictures in the papers today show the Beslan relatives standing with placards calling on the authorities to concede to the terrorists' demands.
The authorities claim that they could not do this since these demands were not clear. But they were clear. They wanted the release of fighters who broke into Ingushetia in late June, leading to 100 dead, and to the withdrawal of federal forces from Chechnya.
To the locals neither the exchange of the thirty Chechen and Ingush men for hundreds of their family and friends nor an end to the war in Chechnya, which they correctly blame for giving birth to the terrorist attack in their town, represented a problem. But for President Putin such concessions were not an option.
The situation is different from the first war in Chechnya, from 1994-6, which was brought to an end after botched hostage rescue attempts. On June 14, 1995 two thousand were held captive at a hospital in Budyonnovsk near Chechnya – 100 died. On January 9, 1996 three thousand were taken hostage in Kizlyar at another hospital in southern Russia, leaving 78 dead as the terrorists made their way back to Chechnya with some of the unreleased hostages for protection.
Unlike President Yeltsin, who suffered from low popularity and a weakened military, President Putin is in no mood to backtrack, especially since he came to power with the slogan of restoring Russian control over Chechnya.
Given the deadlock in negotiations the people who gathered around the school and throughout Beslan were sceptical of Putin's promise not to use force and to save life at all costs.
Indeed the authorities did little to inspire confidence. They gave out little information to the public, and lied about the number of hostages. Moreover the local leaders, who were requested by the hostage takers to conduct the negotiations refused. Larissa, a café owner who was waiting for news of her nephew in the school told the correspondent from the Financial Times, "Where are our leaders? They did not come. They are useless."
After the tragic events, Putin visited Beslan and the townspeople used the occasion to vent their anger against Putin for coming for such a short time and they accused him of posturing for the TV cameras instead of meeting the people who had been traumatised by the tragedy. "He saw no one and talked to no one," said one resident, called Boris, and whose neighbour and family had disappeared. "He just wanted to show the world how young and handsome he is but he hasn't helped and he won't help and he can't stop this happening again."
The repercussions of the hostage crisis
The reason why the terrorists decided on taking a school in North Ossetia is not difficult to work out. In1992 a conflict broke out between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in which thousands died. Following on from the assault from Chechnya into Ingushetia in June, this latest attack is clearly an attempt to spread instability so that there is war not only within Chechnya but also between the various nationalities that comprise the Caucasus.
The ethnic composition of North Ossetia illustrates what a disaster could be unleashed by a wider conflict beyond Chechnya, where the population was largely composed of only two nationalities - Chechen and Russian. According to the official North Ossetia government website 95 nationalities live in North Ossetia, "the most highly represented national groups include Ossetin - 334,000 people (53% of the whole population), Russian - 189,000 people (29.9%), Ingush - 32,783 people. (5.2%), Armenian - 13,000 people (2.2%), Georgian - 12,000 people (1.9%), Ukrainian - 10,000 people (1.6%), Kumik - 9,500 people (1.5%).
The other national groups (Germans, Greeks, Jews, Koreans, Chechens, Azeris, Kabardis, Tartars and others) account for 0.6 of the population."
Other regions in the Caucasus have a similarly mixed ethnic make-up, underlining that people historically do not live and settle according to the boundaries that were made up by diplomats in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus if there is conflict along national lines in one area of the Caucasus, like in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, it would inevitably affect all the nationalities that live in the conflict zone and could lead to retaliation elsewhere.
In particular, apart from the unresolved conflict in the Nagorno-Karabach between Armenia and Azerbaijan, destabilising North Ossetia could bring to a head tensions that are brewing in South Ossetia and Abhazia between Georgia and Russia, sparking off a wider conflict beyond Russia's borders.
One pro-Chechen website (Chechenpress) featured an article which gave a clear idea of the logic of extreme terrorists who welcome the threat of war between Georgia and Russia. In a blunt display of contempt for human suffering and the nightmare consequences pregnant in such a development, the article argued that such a war would provide the basis for a pan-Caucasus war against Russia. Such a war would not be in the interests of any of the peoples of the region, but it would serve the narrow interests of the terrorists who feed off the violence and turmoil that war brings with it.
In the event of such a war Russia clearly would use North Ossetia as a base to defend South Ossetia, which is currently an autonomous part of Georgia and where Russians, Ossetians and Georgians live together peacefully as long as war is not imposed upon them from without. The threat of war is escalating with the losses of army personnel in the Russian and Georgian armies in border skirmishes. In the latest signs of tension, Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's President, conducted a purge of the military elite, which is now to be controlled only by officers trained in the US, while Russia refused to give back army installations on September 1, as agreed, due to technical difficulties.
The descent into further conflict, despite possible temporary diplomatic agreements, does not at all mean that people in the Caucasus want conflict. Among all the reports in the papers regarding the hostage crisis one little reference to protests taking place throughout the Caucasus, including in Chechnya, against the seizure of the school illustrates that what people want is peace and a better future for their children.
However, the reactionary leading cliques of the region will never guarantee peace. And if they won't it is up to ordinary men and women to fight for their own future, which will only be secure in alliance with the struggle of the working class in Russia against our leaders here, who not only put at risk the lives of people in the Caucasus but send young Russian men to fight a war they don't believe in and thereby create the conditions for the carnage of terrorism further afield.