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Russia terror wave exposes weak intelligence

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2004


In the boldest move yet in a new wave of terrorist violence sweeping Russia, attackers wearing explosive belts Wednesday took over a school in southern Russia, turning more than 100 students, teachers, and parents into hostages on the first day of the school year.

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The hostage drama comes after a suicide bombing in Moscow Tuesday night, and the destruction of two airplanes in simultaneous blasts last week.

As tearful families pleaded on television, and Russian troops ringed the school Wednesday, the crisis raised questions about the effectiveness of President Vladimir Putin's uncompromising Chechnya strategy.

The third attack in eight days also brought into focus the limits of Russian intelligence on militant groups - a surprise to some here, since Mr. Putin is a former KGB agent whose administration is dominated by intelligence and security veterans.

The school raid came as an Islamist group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades, which claimed responsibility for previous suicide attacks to avenge the death of Muslim comrades in Chechnya, promised "more waves until we humiliate the infidel state called Russia."

"This is the first time Russia is really encountering a well-organized terrorist offensive," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow.

It is also exposing the limits of "ineffective and notoriously corrupt" police and special forces, says Mr. Felgenhauer. "They don't know plans, they don't even know for sure who is attacking, and they're not ready for the job.

"In previous years, we were just lucky not to have a major terrorist campaign," Felgenhauer adds. "I believe that if someone decided to do something really sustained, we would turn out not much better than Columbia."

Details of Wednesday's hostage situation were sketchy and sometimes contradictory. Immediately after ceremonies marking the first day of class, which were attended by parents and teachers alike, more than a dozen well-armed militants seized School No. 1, a primary school, in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia, a mostly non-Muslim region west of Chechnya.

The hostage-takers reportedly forced pupils to stand at windows to prevent Russian security forces from storming the building. The Russian media reported that seven civilians were killed during the takeover, 50 children escaped in the initial chaos, and another 15 had been set free.

The attackers also reportedly gave a mobile phone to authorities to communicate, but turned back a Muslim cleric who entered the compound to negotiate. According to the Associated Press, at press time Wednesday the armed gang had been contacted by Russian officials and negotiations were underway.

Presidential advisers had said the militants demanded Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya, stop armed action there, and release guerrillas captured in Ingushetia last June.

Among the three people the militants said they would talk to was Leonid Roshal, a children's doctor who played a negotiating role in the Dubrovka Theater siege in Moscow in 2002, when 800 people were taken hostage during a performance. Some 170 died during the raid to free the hostages, mostly from a Russian knockout gas.

The latest hostage taking "is awful, but I think there is not a single situation that is absolutely hopeless," Dr. Roshal told the Monitor Wednesday. "I don't think it could have been prevented."

Moderate Chechen factions denied any role in what they called a "monstrous" act, adding that Russian authorities bore overall responsibility for the situation.

The hostage-takers warned in a note that they would blow up the building if it were stormed and threatened to kill 50 hostages for each one of them killed.