Hundreds of Russians Die in Hostage-Taking

WE KNEW before the footage aired how the scene ended. Hundreds of hostages, many of them children, dying amid explosions and gunfire in a crowded school gymnasium - the work, Russian authorities said, of rebel Chechen terrorists.

Hundreds of Russians Die in Hostage-Taking

WE KNEW before the footage aired how the scene ended. Hundreds of hostages, many of them children, dying amid explosions and gunfire in a crowded school gymnasium - the work, Russian authorities said, of rebel Chechen terrorists. But foreknowledge in no way blunted the force of the images from School Number One in Beslan: more than 1,000 crouching hostages gasping for oxygen; blood streaks where victims had been dragged from the room; children cowering on the floor with bombs hanging from a wire over their heads.

The footage, believed to have been shot by the captors early in a standoff that claimed at least 330 lives, has drawn unprecedented attention to Russia's war with Chechen separatists - which Moscow has managed to keep largely out of the public eye. Glimpses of frightened children with their hands behind their heads, so stifled by heat they'd stripped off their clothes, put a human face on the conflict. But desultory expressions of sympathy (Canada sent $100,000) briefly preceded a torrent of press articles casting Russia as the author of its own misery, noting the mistreatment of Chechen civilians by Russian soldiers. And foreign ministers from three EU countries suggested Moscow needed to explain why so many died during the rescue attempt.

The barbs drew renewed fury from President Vladimir Putin, who is under increasing pressure to settle the Chechen issue. In testy responses to foreign journalists, he likened the rebel leaders to Osama bin Laden, and restated his refusal to negotiate. Instead, his security forces slapped a US$10-million price on the heads of two Chechen rebel leaders, while his top military commander warned of pre-emptive attacks on terrorist bases in other countries. In a reassurance that sounded a lot like a threat, Col.-Gen. Yury Baluyevsky added: "This does not mean that we will deliver nuclear strikes."

But Putin issued almost identical threats two years ago, after 130 people were killed in a Moscow theatre by Chechens. Since then, there have been numerous attacks attributed to Chechen terrorists, including the bombings of two Russian passenger planes two weeks ago. Now there are also growing fears that the Beslan attack will unleash factional violence in the northern Caucasus, a region already riven with tension before the war in nearby Chechnya.

Some angry residents of Ossetia, where Beslan is located, blamed the hostage-taking on neighbouring ethnic Ingush, many of whom have been sympathetic to the Chechen cause, and threatened revenge. In any such scenario, civilians will suffer most. In the pictures from School Number One, the world got a close-up of terror at work, and a greater understanding of how vulnerable the targets are. The children in the video were frightened. But they also looked heroically patient, as they obeyed their barbaric captors. And hoped, against the odds, that someone would come to their rescue.

Maclean's September 20, 2004