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Could Beslan tragedy happen again?

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Archive pictures of the Beslan school siege

Five years ago, Chechen militants took over a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. They held more than 1,000 hostages for three days before Russian forces stormed the building. Some 334 hostages - including 186 children - died. Oliver Bullough assesses the siege's impact on the Chechen separatists' cause, and asks whether the horrors of Beslan could be repeated today.

Relatives cry at the funeral of victims of the school siege in Beslan, 5 September 2004
Even before the siege at Beslan, it had been a violent year

By the time the school in Beslan was seized on 1 September 2004, people following the news from Chechnya had become numbed. Even before the siege, it had been an appalling year.

In February, 40 people were killed by a bomb on the Moscow metro.

In May, the Kremlin-picked leader of Chechnya was blown up in Grozny, along with five others.

On 24 August, two planes exploded, killing 90 people.

And on 31 August, on the eve of the Beslan attack, a suicide bomber killed nine people outside a Moscow metro station.

When the school was attacked, it just seemed part of an ever-steeper escalation of violence that had started a decade before, when Russian troops first tried to crush the Chechens.

Brutal fighters

We all feared what would come next, after Beslan failed to gain Chechnya independence.

Weeks passed, then months, and we began to hope that perhaps the children's pain had touched the brutal fighters, and that they had decided not to allow such an outrage to be repeated.

Shamil Basayev in Grozny, Chechnya, file pic from 1999
Basayev masterminded the Beslan siege and dozens of other attacks

The Russian security forces claimed credit for the calm, of course, and maintained their assault on the rebels.

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed in a basement in 2005.

Shamil Basayev, the mastermind of the Beslan siege and dozens of other attacks on civilians, was blown up a year later.

The rebels were without leaders, hunted and starved of funds. Surely the Russians were right in saying their disruption of the fighters was staving off further attacks?

But that was not the whole story.

Beslan marked a point when the rebels discovered the full resolve of their Russian enemies.

Mr Basayev had, in 1995, won peace talks by seizing a hospital, and the Beslan siege was intended to do the same. However, Russia had changed.

The demands made by the hostage-takers show how out of touch they were with the new reality under hardline then-President Vladimir Putin, who came to power precisely because he attacked the Chechen rebels so decisively.

The scribbled slip of paper they gave to their negotiators included a precise description of the future Chechen state, right down to what currency it would use.

They apparently did not realise Mr Putin would never concede such a state's existence, even if it did use the rouble.

Unexpected?

When Russia launched tanks and troops at the school building, despite having failed to free all but a handful of hostages, it was clear to Mr Basayev and others that no atrocity could secure peace talks.

Vladimir Putin, 2004 file picture
Putin came to power partly because of his decisive stance on Chechen rebels

"I did not expect this," Mr Basayev told Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky in an exclusive interview in 2005.

"In Beslan, there was this question of either stopping the war or the resignation of Putin. If these had been fulfilled all the people would have been released."

Mr Basayev reined his fighters in. Why lose dozens of people on a suicide mission if they achieved nothing?

But, without high-profile attacks or any chance of independence, the resistance movement lost its way.

Why should people join the rebels if all they could do was lay a few mines and fire at the occasional soldier?

The Russians talked about the war being over, and even cancelled their special "Counter-Terrorist" regulations earlier this year.

The guerrillas needed a goal to inspire new recruits, who would have to survive the constant pressure of being hunted by the Russians and their Chechen allies.

Caucasus emirate

Doku Umarov, the rebels' new leader, found the answer in 2007.

More mass bloodshed - this time, without the chance of saving hostages in exchange for peace talks - has never looked so likely

He proclaimed himself head of a Caucasus emirate, which extended over the whole Caucasus range since borders were an infidel invention intended to divide the faithful.

He declared that the emirate would first be liberated then be used as a base for exporting Sharia law to all other Muslim countries in the world.

He explicitly linked his movement to international Islamist groups, and even announced that Americans were targets.

Russia had claimed for years that the Chechens were part of the al-Qaeda network, but this was the first time the Chechens' own leader echoed al-Qaeda's rhetoric.

Mr Umarov's announcement attracted derision, and split the resistance movement into a secular wing led by Akhmed Zakayev in London, and his own fighters.

Stripped-down ideology

But the doubters missed the point. The emirate was not so much a state as a cult.

With its stripped-down Islamic ideology, it attracted vengeful Chechens angered by the brutality of the Russian government.

Umarov, a rebel veteran, has become very successful at exploiting their humiliation and despair.

This year, suicide bombers have struck in Grozny, and in neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan.

After four years with almost no suicide attacks, the world had come to ignore the Caucasus, but violence is back.

I fear that the hopes we felt in 2004 that the attacks on civilians were over may have been premature.

More mass bloodshed - this time, without the chance of saving hostages in exchange for peace talks - has never looked so likely.

Oliver Bullough is Caucasus Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. His book - Let Our Fame Be Great: Struggle and Survival in the Caucasus - will be published next year.



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Beslan still a raw nerve for Russia
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Trial brings no solace to Beslan
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