(NYT) The official sent by the Kremlin to negotiate with hostage takers in Beslan warned Tuesday of an explosion of violence that could cause the Caucasus region of southern Russia to “go up in flames.”
The official, Ruslan Aushev, a respected regional leader, said he had information of plans for revenge attacks next month that could achieve the apparent aim of the hostage takers by sparking a new wave of violence.
“The situation is balanced between war and peace,” said Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, which borders the republic of North Ossetia, where more than 300 people died in the takeover of a school early this month. “If Ingushetia gets drawn into a conflict with Ossetia, it will be a mess,” he said. “Look at the map of the region. There is Georgia, there is South Ossetia, there are Abkhazia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan. It’s a big pot where everyone will seek to solve his own problems. So, this is a very dangerous scenario. “Those who are doing this either do not understand what they are doing or are doing this on purpose to set the south of Russia, and maybe the North Caucasus and the entire Caucasus, on fire.”
Aushev urged the government to enter into talks with the more moderate rebels in Chechnya, where a brutal separatist war has continued for a decade.
“There are moderate rebels, fortunately they make up the majority,” he said. “But there are also radicals who are ready to blow up, seize and so on. So, the more pressure and force we use, the more radicals we create.”
Aushev said that the terrorists he spoke to were fanatics “who will not stop at anything.”
“Even if you give them five death sentences with their heads, hands and legs chopped off, they will say, ‘That’s fine, we are ready.’ So, it won’t change anything. You must understand that there is a new generation of fanatics.”
Inside the schoolhouse, which he said was as steamy as a bathhouse and crammed with more than 1,200 people, the attackers gave him a handwritten list of demands on a small checked page from a notebook. Though the demands were extreme, he said, they could at least have formed the basis for negotiations if they had been addressed more quickly and if explosions and gunfire on the third day had not brought the siege to a violent end.
The main demand was for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, for the inclusion of Chechnya as a separate state within the commonwealth of former Soviet states, for the maintenance of the ruble as currency and for the federal government to restore order in the region. The demands were addressed “To his Excellency, President of the Russian Federation Putin, from the servant of the Allah, Shamil Basayev.” Basayev, a rebel leader who is sought by the government, has claimed responsibility for the school takeover.
“They went further and asked me to tell authorities that they shouldn’t try to frighten them with relatives,” he said. “The commander said, ‘You can bring our relatives over here and kill them in the yard. And we will kill 50 percent of the hostages.’ So, they made it clear that if a decree on a withdrawal of troops was read on television, they would leave.”
Aushev said he persuaded the terrorists to release 15 babies and 11 women. “But as far as I know, one of those women returned, because there were other children, her children, inside.”
He said that the authorities had made plans to storm the school but that no order for storming was given before two bombs exploded and wild shooting began. He said the rebels began shooting first, but he blamed local militiamen for much of the violence.
“I can’t really understand how they got there,” he said. “How were they let into the area? And then shooting began.”