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.
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.
"At the moment the dynamic is on the side of the rebels," says Oksana Antonenko, a Russia specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "It's up to them to state the terms of where it's going to happen: It could happen on a plane, in the school; it could happen everywhere."
With Russians feeling increasingly vulnerable, questions are being asked about the capability of intelligence and security services, which - unlike their brethren in Israel - are not known for preventing many would-be attacks.
"No doubt in such cases the special services always bear responsibility, but things are not so simple," says Yury Kobaladze, a former KGB press secretary. "Even the most powerful and effective special services who are financed well, like in Israel, are sometimes helpless. Efforts of special services are not enough. Political decisions are necessary."
No group had claimed responsibility by press time. But since the mid-1990s, high-profile hostage situations - all of which have ended with some bloodshed, and sometimes botched Russian raids - have been a hallmark of separatist guerrillas in Chechnya. How the crisis is resolved will affect the standing of President Putin, who on Tuesday linked recent plane bombings to Al Qaeda, and has presided over Russia's war in Chechnya for five years.
Moscow's choice for Chechen leader, Alu Alkhanov, this week vowed to use his reported 73 percent landslide victory in last Sunday's vote - despite charges of fraud in the election - to "finish the rebels [and] eradicate them forever."
"[The Kremlin] could say this [wave of violence] is a result of their victory in Chechnya, that the enemy has resorted to terrorism against civilians because they have lost on the battlefield," says Felgenhauer. "But for the Russian people, they are getting real scared."
Moscow was already tense Tuesday night, after a female suicide bomber killed herself and nine others at the crowded Ryzhskaya subway entrance. Such attackers are often called Chechen "black widows," women who have lost husbands or fathers at the hands of Russian forces, and take their own lives in explosive revenge.
Wednesday, Russian defense chief Sergei Ivanov said "a war has been declared on us, in which the enemy is invisible and there is no front line."
Investigators in the dual plane crashes, which killed 89, are focusing on two Chechen women, who bought tickets at the the last minute, and whose bodies were unclaimed. Traces of explosive hexogen, used in previous Chechen attacks, were found to have detonated midair at the rear of each plane.
"It is only beginning to dawn on people, when it's happening every day," says Antonenko at IISS. "But when you look at the number of terrorist incidents happening [in Russia] in the last year alone - with the exception of Iraq, which is a war zone - it is by far the greatest number of anywhere in the world."
In addition to the 2002 theater siege in Moscow, the current school drama echoes another high-profile raid in June 1995. Back then, Chechen rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev - the warlord widely believed to be behind some recent anti-Russia attacks - took hundreds of hostages in a hospital in the southern town of Budyonnovsk. The takeover and a messy Russian response left 100 dead.
"Either this is a major miscalculation - taking innocent children hostage, which can provoke a strong backlash - or this group doesn't care very much about public opinion," says Antonenko.
She finds this act both sobering and likely to beget more violence. "This may be terrorism for terrorism's sake, rather than to try to achieve any clear political objective," she adds. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to Oksana Antonenko as a "he."]