(NYT) By STEVEN LEE MYERS MOSCOW – In a rare address to his nation at a time of grave crisis, President Vladimir V. Putin said on Saturday that the school siege in the southern city of Beslan was an attack on all of Russia and called for the mobilization of society to resist what he called “a total and full-scale war” to splinter the country.
Mr. Putin spoke from the Kremlin as the death toll from the violent end of the siege at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan rose to 330 – half of the dead were children – with officials warning that it would rise still higher as workers searched the school’s charred wreckage and more succumbed to their wounds in hospitals.
“This is challenge to all of Russia, to all our people,” he said. “This is an attack against all of us.”
Calling the siege “a horrible tragedy,” he sought to answer the seething anger that many here have expressed after a series of terrorist acts that in 10 wrenching days have killed more than 500 people.
Speaking of the sweep of Russia’s post-Soviet history, he criticized corruption in the judiciary, the inefficiency of law enforcement and the difficult transition to capitalism that he acknowledged had left few resources to secure Russia’s borders in a changing and dangerous epoch.
For Mr. Putin, who projects the image of unswerving leadership, it was a striking acknowledgement that not all was well under his watch.
“We have to admit that we failed to recognize the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our country and the world as a whole,” Mr. Putin said, who spoke for 10 minutes, standing alone in front of Russia’s flag and a wood-paneled backdrop. “At any rate, we failed to react to them adequately. We demonstrated our weakness, and the weak are beaten.”
Mr. Putin did not enumerate Russia’s failings, but he echoed a feeling of helplessness and fear that has shaken the country, demanding, as many here have, that security and law-enforcement agencies work more efficiently to counter the threat of terrorism. He also suggested that Russian society itself needed to develop to succeed in the fight.
“Events in other countries prove that terrorists meet the most effective rebuff where they confront not only the power of the state, but also an organized and united civil society,” he said.
He did not elaborate, but many Russians have been citing the experience of the United States, Israel, Spain and even China as more effective in protecting their citizens. A policeman guarding Chekhov’s former estate in the town of Melikhovo, on Saturday contrasted Russia’s helpless to the United States’ resolve after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Our government is to blame,” said the officer, who would only give his first name, Valery. “They do not take care of their citizens. In the U.S., after Sept. 11, there were not any more attacks. Here they have not done anything. We get kicked from all sides.”
Mr. Putin appeared determined to show the government would and could act. He said he would soon propose measures to strengthen the nation’s unity, to coordinate the political and security structures of Russia’s Caucasian republics and to create a new emergency-management system. The failures of the existing system were painfully obvious in the government’s confused and contradictory responses after the bombings of two passenger airliners on Aug. 24 and during the siege in Beslan, in the southern republic of North Ossetia.
At a time when Mr. Putin’s policies have been accused of strengthening the power of security services and otherwise eroding democratic freedoms, he emphasized that all the new measures would be within the bounds of Russia’s Constitution.
Although he made a broad appeal for national unity in the face of terror, he did not mention the war in Chechnya, a struggle linked to all of the attacks that have roiled the country. That suggested that he would not consider changing the Kremlin’s strategy there, despite years of war and atrocities that have left the Chechen people embittered and the republic ruined.
Mr. Putin not apologize or express remorse for terror’s mounting toll here, for which critics have placed blame in part on the Kremlin’s harsh repressions in Chechnya, but he addressed “those who lost the dearest in their life, their children.”
In Beslan, the physical and psychological toll of the siege and its deadly end on Friday continued to mount. At the city’s House of Culture, which had turned into a makeshift crisis center, the authorities compiled a list of 205 hostages who remained unaccounted for. Workers and investigators searched the school’s wreckage for bodies and evidence; by midday they had discovered 237 bodies.
Officials now acknowledge that more than 1,000 students, parents and teachers were held hostage for 52 hours. There were 542 people, many of them children with grave wounds, in hospitals in Beslan, in North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, and in Moscow.
A day after the siege ended with two last blasts and hours of firefights, new details emerged of the attack, which involved more than 30 heavily armed fighters, including Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians and, officials said, some foreigners.
Sergei N. Fridinsky, Russia’s deputy prosecutor general for the region, said in remarks reported by news agencies that 10 of 26 fighters killed in the siege’s violent climax were foreigners, but neither he nor other officials provided any details or evidence of their origin.
Russia’s security forces were also reported to be searching for a group of captors who may still be at large, having managed to evade Russian forces arrayed around the school.
A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three of the fighters had been arrested after the chaos on Friday and were being questioned about the planning of the attack, which bore evidence of extensive planning and preparation.
Maj. Gen. Valery A. Andreyev, director of North Ossetia’s branch of the Federal Security Service, said Saturday that preparations for the seizure might have begun in the summer, saying the fighters may have infiltrated the school and smuggled in explosives and weapons during a renovation.
Officials have said they believed that the attack was carried out by a contingent of militants led by one of Chechnya’s most notorious rebel commanders, Shamil Basayev.
Before dawn on Saturday, Mr. Putin flew briefly to Beslan, where he visited a hospital and vowed to relentlessly pursue not only those involved in the siege but also any others who would “foment interethnic hatred” across the volatile republics of the northern Caucasus.
“We will consider anyone who gives in to this kind of provocation as an accomplice in this terrorist act and a supporter of the terrorists,” he said in televised remarks to the region’s president and security officials. He ordered North Ossetia’s borders sealed, apparently a confirmation that at least some captors had escaped.
Mr. Putin, facing both sympathy and criticism at home and abroad, returned to the Kremlin and, in his address, to the theme of ethnic conflicts and divisions that, he said, terrorists sought to exploit.
“Terrorists think that they are stronger, that they can intimidate us, paralyze our will, decompose our society,” Mr. Putin said Saturday night. “It seems that we have a choice: to resist or to cave in and agree with their claims, to give up and allow them to destroy and to take apart Russia, in the hope that eventually they will leave us alone.”
Noting his oath of office to protect the nation, he added, “I am convinced that in fact there is no choice.”
C. J. Chivers contributed reporting from Beslanfor this article and Sophia Kishkovsky fromMelikhovo.