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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
'Disturbing failures' in school assault
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

It is still far too early to draw up a full assessment of the performance of the Russian security forces at the besieged school building in Beslan.

Soldiers take positions at a seized school in Beslan, Russia
Were the armed forces fully trained for such situations?

That will have to wait until a clear chronology is established, detailing exactly how the events unfolded, what orders were given and how they were acted upon.

But already one thing is clear.

This looks like an improvised operation at best - and one which revealed several disturbing failures in contingency planning.

Deficient

As dawn broke on Friday there was no immediate hint of the trouble to come.

It looked as though negotiations would continue for the day, at least.

One small group of hostages had already been released. However, the uncompromising demands of the hostage-takers left the Russian authorities with few options.

The heat and the overall condition of the hostages - many of them young children - meant that this stand-off could not be allowed to drag on for days.

As a result, it would be expected that all necessary military measures would be taken to prepare for a possible assault - either as a last resort, or to respond to some unexpected turn of events.

In the event these preparations seem to have been deficient on a number of counts.

For one thing, the Russian forces failed to establish clear and secure perimeters within which the conflict could be contained.

The break-out of at least some of the hostage-takers should have been impossible.

The operation appeared to lack co-ordination. Medical facilities on the scene appeared to be inadequate.

Old forces in a new world

One fact should be clear from afar in the rush to judge the Russian security forces' performance.

Once military action began, significant casualties may have been unavoidable.

Girl being carried out of Russian school siege
It is not clear how many hostages are free

The hostage-takers were clearly not going to get independence for Chechnya. The 'best' they could hope for was to cause a major tragedy that would damage President Vladimir Putin's reputation - and force Chechnya back to the top of the Russian political agenda.

Friday's tragic events may well have done that. But equally, they may well have forced the whole issue of security and the state of Russia's armed forces to the head of the agenda as well.

For all the talk in Russia of military reform and modernisation, this former superpower's armed forces have languished in the post-communist world.

They have not been sufficiently streamlined, nor trained and equipped, for the new challenges of a very different world.

Elite special forces troops flown in from Moscow, or wherever else, cannot operate in a vacuum.

The string of attacks inspired by Chechen radicals in the past few weeks has brought a general sense of insecurity to many ordinary Russians - akin to that felt by many Americans after the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

Whatever the popular Russian mood towards Chechnya, there are going to be many people who will now ask fundamental questions about their government's capacity to ensure their safety.

It is a question that Mr Putin may well be asking of his generals and intelligence chiefs as well.


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