Russians have become all too used to terrorist bombings since the resumption of hostilities in Chechnya five years ago. But a series of attacks that began last week and which have continued into today have been particularly brutal and unexpected.
Today, some 20 armed attackers stormed a school in the town of Beslan, in Russia's republic of North Ossetia, taking several hundred people hostage, including 200 children. Since this is the first school day of the year in Russia, many students were accompanied by their parents and other relatives who were intending to take part in opening festivities.
The hostage takers, who are wearing suicide-bomb belts, are threatening to blow up the building if police try to enter it. They are also threatening to kill 50 children for each dead militant, according to North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev.
Two people have been killed since the incident began. Eleven others, including at least two teachers and three police officers, are reported wounded.
Some of the children managed to escape from the school, including this boy, Zaurbek Tsumartov, who spoke to reporters: "We were standing by the gate, not in line [with the rest of the students at the school year opening ceremony], and they were playing some music [at the ceremony]. Then I saw three men running with automatic rifles. At first I thought it was a joke. Then they started shooting in the air and we ran away."
Reports say the hostage takers are demanding the release of fighters detained over a series of attacks on police facilities in neighboring Ingushetia in June. Those well-coordinated attacks killed more than 90 people.
Today's events come after a female suicide bomber blew herself up on yesterday near the entrance to a crowded subway station in the capital, Moscow. Mayor Yurii Luzhkov made the announcement to the media: "At 8 in the evening, at precisely 8:07, a terrorist act was committed. It was a suicide attack -- a woman, with a very large quantity of explosives filled with bolts and various metallic objects. The female suicide bomber was headed towards the entrance to the subway but at the entrance to the subway, two police officers were on duty. She became frightened, turned around and decided in a crowd of people -- there were many people -- to destroy herself."
Police believe the female suicide bomber was most likely a Chechen -- one of the so-called black widows who have lost family members in the war in Chechnya and who have undertaken a series of deadly attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities in recent months.
A group calling itself the Al-Islambuli Brigades claimed responsibility for the Moscow bombing in a statement posted on the Internet, citing Moscow's war in Chechnya as motivation. The Islambuli Brigades are named after Khaled al-Islambuli, the leader of a group of militant Islamists who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and claim to be linked to Al-Qaeda operations in several countries.
The same group claimed responsibility for last week's crashes of two Russian planes that killed 89 people. The authorities say both aircraft were brought down by bombs.
For the past few days, there has been speculation in the Russian media that two female suicide bombers -- friends from Grozny -- blew themselves up on each plane, within minutes of each other. Both women had checked in for each flight at the last minute. It appears both had traveled to Moscow from Chechnya on board the same bus a few days before. No family members have come forward to claim either body.
Following yesterday's bombing outside the Moscow subway station, the lenta.ru news website quoted unnamed security sources as saying the person behind that attack could be the sister of one of the suspected plane bombers -- who also traveled from Chechnya to Moscow on that same bus, just over a week ago.
None of these suspicions has been confirmed. Investigators are continuing their work.
The latest violence, however, would seem to support President Vladimir Putin's assertion that international terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda are now working together with Chechen extremists. Of course, this is based on the assumption that the Al-Islambuli Brigades is a genuine terrorist group. But as Magnus Ranstorp of the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland explains, no one really knows how real or "virtual" the group is.
"Without exclusive, unique evidence, any group can establish a presence and invent a name and then claim responsibility for actions retroactively. So, unless there is some unique evidence, we don't know very much about the nature of whether this group exists, and if it does, how large it is and how serious it is," Ranstorp said.
Moscow-based political scientist Andrei Piontkovskii believes the way in which these recent attacks have been conducted does point to a possible new alliance between some of the Chechen separatists and Al-Qaeda. Piontkovskii places much of the blame for this development with Putin himself.
Piontkovskii said that after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, the Russian president claimed Chechen separatist leaders were linked to Al-Qaeda, and used the explanation as a pretext for not opening negotiations. Piontkovskii calls this policy short-sighted and says it may have forced the Chechen resistance to follow precisely that path, after seeing all other avenues to compromise closed.
"We must all understand who our adversary is. What is characteristic about all these latest terror attacks is that no one has presented any demands. And if someone has taken responsibility for these blasts, it is some murky organization belonging to the worldwide network of Islamic terrorism. What is happening before our eyes is that a large part of the Chechen resistance is joining the ranks of this worldwide network of Islamic terrorism and becoming its reservists. And this is the result of our clumsy policies over the past several years in Chechnya," Piontkovskii said.
Piontkovskii's recipe for salvaging the situation and ending the latest wave of terrorism in Russia is to reverse course and open talks with key figures in the Chechen separatist leadership -- to offer them a way out of their corner and to stop playing into the hand of Al-Qaeda.
"On the one hand, [we need] a merciless war against global terrorism and on the other hand, [we need] maximum flexibility and an attempt to forge maximum compromise with that part of the Chechen resistance which distances itself from these acts, which presents demands which may appear unacceptable but which one can discuss. Concretely, I am speaking about holding talks with [Aslan] Maskhadov, [Akhmed] Zakaev, [Ilyas] Akhmadov, and others. This would not be bowing to terrorism, it would be an attempt to isolate this dangerous global Islamic terrorism," Piontkovskii said.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)