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Analysis: Who Is Behind The Hostage Taking In North Ossetia?

More than 10 hours after a group of some 17 armed militants seized a school in the town of Beslan in the Republic of North Ossetia on the morning of 1 September, the identities of the militants and their aims remained unclear. The militants were still holding hostage some 120 students, along with parents and teachers; at least eight people were reported to have died from injuries received during the initial onslaught, although reports of casualty figures varied.

The modus operandi of the attackers, a group comprising both men and women, some of whom were reportedly wearing explosives strapped to their bodies in readiness for a suicide bombing, was reminiscent of that used by the Chechen perpetrators of the Moscow-theater hostage taking in October 2002. Responsibility for that operation was claimed by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. Basaev was also reportedly one of the masterminds behind the multiple raids into Ingushetia during the night of 21-22 June, in which up to 100 people, mostly Interior Ministry personnel, were killed.

Initial reports suggested that the Beslan kidnappers demanded the release of the 30 or more suspects apprehended on suspicion of taking part in that raid. (They also reportedly demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.) Eyewitnesses told the independent Ingush website that many of the young men who took part in the June attack were Ingush, not Chechen. The same website also quoted one of them, who explained that he "never used to be a militant" but that he and hundreds of other young Ingush had fled to southern Chechnya and joined the ranks of Basaev's fighters after their relatives were abducted by Ingush Interior Ministry personnel.

The fact that the Beslan hostage takers reportedly demanded talks not only with the president of North Ossetia, Aleksandr Dzasokhov, but also with Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov would substantiate the hypothesis that at least some of the hostage takers are ethnic Ingush.

And if the hostage takers are Ingush, there is a logical explanation why they should have sought a target not in their home republic but in neighboring North Ossetia. The Republic of North Ossetia-Alania is an anomaly in the North Caucasus on several counts. First, its population is Christian, not Muslim (their patron saint is St. George). And as Dzasokhov pointed out in a recent article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the Ossetians were the only Caucasian ethnic group that voluntarily petitioned the tsar (in 1774) for their territory to be absorbed into the Russian Empire. Second, they are the only ethnic group in the North Caucasus to speak an Indo-European language (part of the Iranian language group).

More important, however, there is bad blood between the Ingush and Ossetians. The Ingush, like the Chechens, were deported en masse to Kazakhstan in 1944 on the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin on suspicion of sympathizing with Nazi Germany. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was then formally abolished, and its westernmost Prigorodnyi Raion incorporated into North Ossetia. Following Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a green light was given for the repatriation of the exiled peoples, including the Chechens and Ingush, and for the reformation of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, albeit within different borders: Prigorodnyi Raion remained part of North Ossetia.

In October 1992, just months after the Checheno-Ingush ASSR split into its two separate components, the Ingush and Ossetians fought a brief but brutal war for control of Prigorodnyi Raion. Up to 500 people were killed within less than a week, and the Ingush population of not only Prigorodnyi Raion but North Ossetia as a whole -- variously estimated at between 35,000 and 60,000 people -- was forcibly displaced by North Ossetian security forces reinforced by Russian army troops. Most of them fled to neighboring Ingushetia. Over the past 12 years, and especially since Dzasokhov's election as North Ossetian president in 1998, efforts have been made to enable Ingush to return, but with minimal success.

For RFE/RL news coverage of the Russian hostage crisis in North Ossetia, see "Russian Authorities Negotiate In Southern Hostage Crisis" and "At Least Two Dead In North Ossetian School Standoff".

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