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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September 2004, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Caucasus conflict fears escalate
 bus stands in front of a barrier at the Chermen check-point on the Ossetian-Ingush border
Troops have been deployed on Ossetian-Ingush border crossings
Fears are growing in the North Caucasus that the Beslan school siege is close to re-igniting a decades-old ethnic conflict in the volatile region.

Russian media reports say people from neighbouring Chechnya and Ingushetia have begun leaving North Ossetia, fearing reprisals over the tragedy.

Some Beslan residents say they want revenge, seizing on reports that there were Ingush among the hostage-takers.

A local official said several had asked for the hostage-takers' addresses.

We have fought the Ingush with weapons in our hands - today, our men are ready to go after them once again
Irina Parfiyeva
Beslan resident
Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper quoted the official as saying that many people had contacts in the local administration and it was possible that such information had already changed hands.

"Relatives... are standing there with their rifles and are ready to go to take revenge," the official said.

Beslan resident Irina Parfiyeva told the Moscow Times: "We have fought the Ingush with weapons in our hands. Today, our men are ready to go after them once again."

Anger in North Ossetia

A territorial dispute between mostly Christian North Ossetia and Muslim Ingushetia led to fighting in 1992.

Unidentified mourners in Beslan
Many Beslan residents want to avenge the deaths of loved ones
Experts say a new conflict could further destabilise the North Caucasus.

There are reports that some ethnic Ingush in North Ossetia are now afraid to send their children to schools and other public places, fearing retaliatory attacks.

Some Ossetians have already started asking strangers questions to check who they are, reports say.

The private radio station Ekho Moskvy reported quoting listeners in the region that some Ingush families had begun fleeing North Ossetia on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Ossetian student Alan Khadikov told the Moscow Times that all Ingush and Chechen students from the university in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz had been sent out of the region.

However, so far there has been no official word of an exodus.

Simmering tensions

The history of conflict between Ossetians and Ingush runs deep.

First of all there is a territorial dispute, the BBC's Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett says.

Towards the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of all Ingush, along with their ethnic cousins the Chechens, to Central Asia, accusing them of potential collaboration with Hitler's Germany.

Many Ingush and Chechen homes were occupied by other nationalities, including the Ossetians.

So when Nikita Khrushchev allowed the deported nations to return in the mid-1950s there were inevitable conflicts over homes and territory.

Chechens and Ingush remained bitter over the deportation, and there was a strong current of separatist, pro-independence feeling, our analyst says.

And though Ingushetia, unlike Chechnya, did not stage a revolt against Russian rule at the break-up of the Soviet Union, they were suspected of harbouring certain pro-separatist sympathies, he says.

The Ossetians, in contrast, have always remained firmly loyal to Russia, having joined the Russian Empire voluntarily in 1774.

Armed population

There are still question marks over the exact identity and aims of the group that took over the school in Beslan.

But their choice of a place with a solidly pro-Russian tradition was clearly not accidental.

With anger among the Ossetians so high, sections of the Russian media are now reporting fears of ethnic clashes, particularly in the Prigorodny district south-east of Beslan.

This is a region claimed by the Ingush as part of their original republic. In the early 1990s there was a vicious bout of fighting between the two sides.

And with so many civilians in the region already armed, the potential for conflict is again considerable, our analyst adds.


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