Prague, 2 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It has been a year since the Beslan tragedy and a year since the Beslan Mothers Committee first demanded a meeting with Putin.
Today, they got their wish. A somber-faced Putin told them he shared their grief. He said he deeply regretted the fact that the authorities had failed to save their relatives. But Putin said Russia was not alone in having difficulty preventing acts of terrorism.
"You know about the terrible tragedy that took place in the United States in 2001, when law enforcement and security services failed to stop a terrible terrorist act in which thousands of people died," Putin said. "You know about the terrorist acts in Spain, about the recent terror attack in London, in Britain. Developed, powerful countries with functioning economies and well-structured security services cannot prevent these barbaric acts. There are a lot of other examples. What can we say about our country which has suffered great losses in all areas after the disintegration of the Soviet Union?"
Russian television did not show the reaction of the Beslan mothers to Putin's remarks. Before the meeting, however, many said they were angry that it has taken the Kremlin so long to react and they are even angrier that the investigation into the massacre has yielded no answers to their anguished questions.
So far, the authorities have failed to provide a clear account of the chaotic standoff between the hostage takers and Russian special forces, which ended the siege, and in which more than 330 victims died.
Among the questions the Beslan mothers want Putin to answer are how more than 30 heavily armed terrorists could have moved undetected against the school on 1 September 2004 in North Ossetia, part of Russia’s most heavily patrolled region? What were Putin and other top officials doing during the three-day crisis? Why did they refuse to negotiate with the hostage-takers? And why did security forces use tanks, helicopters, and flamethrowers against a building where around 1,100 people were being held captive?
Susanna Dudieva, the co-founder of the Beslan Mothers Committee who lost her 13-year-old son Zaur in the Beslan massacre, is in the eight-person delegation of mothers and local officials that is visiting the Kremlin. She told RFE/RL's Russian Service yesterday from Beslan what she wants from Putin.
"We would like the president of the country also to testify before the court, to give evidence about what actions he took to influence events in Beslan, what actions he took to ensure there would be no casualties, [what actions he took] to ensure the outcome would not be so cruel and so bloody. There is a parliamentary commission which should have already questioned all leaders, all officials about what they were doing, and at what time," Dudieva said.
"We would like the president of the country also to testify before the court, to give evidence about what actions he took to influence events in Beslan, what actions he took to ensure there would be no casualties, [what actions he took] to ensure the outcome would not be so cruel and so bloody." - Dudieva
On the eve of their meeting with Putin, the mothers issued an open letter to the media, saying they had lost hope in any fair investigation. They said that if things did not change quickly, they would seek to emigrate.
Dudieva explained the motivation behind the letter: "Now we see that nothing has changed, nothing is changing and there is no action being taken to ensure the investigation is objective. This is what prompted us to undertake this form of protest, which we outlined in our letter, which was written in the name of all the victims and signed by the members of the [Beslan Mothers] Committee."
She made clear that the letter was an ultimatum to Putin. "If an objective investigation is not undertaken, if they do not tell the whole world the truth about what happened in Beslan, we will be forced to leave," she said. "And somewhere else, far from the homeland we love, far from Ossetia, which we love and cherish, we will fight for the truth. Whatever happens, we will fight for the truth, for the sake of our children and in the name of those who died, and in the name of those who should live, in the name of those who should have a childhood, and who should be happy."
The Beslan mothers said they planned to hold a news conference upon their return home later today.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)See RFE/RL's dedicated webpage "Remembering Beslan".