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Russia: Authorities Have Poor Record On Hostage Crises

Russians demonstrating against terrorism (file photo) Russia has encountered several hostage crises before Beslan. In most instances, it has dealt poorly with them. In the 1995 Budyonnovsk case, the militants escaped. In the 2002 Moscow theater siege, scores of innocent hostages died when Russian special forces stormed the building.

Prague, 3 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's record on hostage crises is grim. Hundreds of innocent victims have been killed in a number of hostage-taking incidents in recent years.

Boris Makarenko is an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. He said Russian special services failed in their handling of two of the three major hostage crises staged by Chechen militants.

"Russian special services failed in the first two cases," Makarenko said. "In the first case, they began an assault, but it was unsuccessful in that it had to be canceled, with human losses among secret service officers and hostages. After that, the terrorists were released. I, of course, am speaking about Budyonnovsk."

In June 1995, Chechen rebels seized a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Russian forces stormed the building in an assault that left 100 people dead. After five days, the fighters were allowed to leave the building and return freely to Chechnya.

The second failure, according to Makarenko, was the 1996 Kizlyar incident. Chechen fighters took hundreds of hostages in the Daghestani town. As the crisis evolved, the captors moved the hostages by bus to Pervomaiskoye, on the Chechen border, and held them in various houses in the village.

Russian forces then bombed Pervomaiskoye in a tactic that many critics say showed total disregard for the safety of either the hostages or innocent civilians in the town. A number of hostages died in that attack, and many guerrillas escaped.
"No one was shot or died from explosives during the [Moscow theater] operation. However, later it was evident that while they learned how to fight with terrorists, the whole system overall did not learn how to save human lives." -- Boris Makarenko, analyst at the Center for Political Technologies

The third hostage crisis was the Nord-Ost siege. In October 2002, a group of Chechen fighters took 700 people captive in a Moscow theater.

After a standoff of several days, Russian forces pumped a narcotic gas into the theater, hoping to incapacitate the hostage takers. But while all 41 militants were killed, nearly 130 hostages died of gas poisoning as well -- a statistic blamed on Russian authorities' slow response to the medical crisis.

Despite this, Makarenko said the performance of Russian special services was good during Nord-Ost.

"Nord-Ost is a completely different story. As a special-services operation, it was good. I stress, only as an operation of the secret services. Secret services made the right assessment of the situation, understood that they had the right to risk an assault and stormed [the building]," Makarenko said. "No one was shot or died from explosives during the operation. However, later it was evident that while they learned how to fight with terrorists, the whole system overall did not learn how to save human lives."

There were few doctors on standby at the theater, so rescue operations were slow. Medical professionals were largely helpless to treat those victims brought to hospitals, because they were not informed about which gas had been used.

Makarenko stressed that many hostages died after the assault and that secret services cannot be blamed for their deaths. He said that in comparison to the failed operations in Budyonnovsk and Pervomaiskoye, the Nord-Ost operation marks considerable progress.

Paul Beaver is an expert at Ashbourne Beaver Associates, a think tank in Britain investigating intelligence and defense matters. He said Russian authorities and special services take pride in their work but still lack expertise in dealing with such extraordinary situations.

"The Russians have got huge pride, huge arrogance, but their military is not very effective. It's full of conscripts," Beaver said.

Beaver said Russian military forces still retain a Soviet-style mentality that makes it difficult for them to admit incompetence, despite the risk that such failings might ultimately cost human lives.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)