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Russia: Putin Rejects Open Inquiry Into Beslan Tragedy As Critical Voices Mount

Vladimir Putin (file photo) Vladimir Putin, in an interview yesterday with foreign journalists, said he has refused to order a public inquiry into the Beslan hostage-taking crisis and its deadly aftermath. The Russian president said a private investigation will suffice. But as RFE/RL reports, a growing number of voices in Russia are criticizing the authorities' actions during the Beslan crisis.

Prague, 7 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An estimated 40,000 people gathered in St. Petersburg's Palace Square yesterday to express their revulsion at the latest act of terrorism in North Ossetia.

More than twice that number are expected to attend a similar rally planned in Moscow later today. Some in Russia are comparing the psychological impact of the Beslan bloodbath to the 11 September 2001 events in the United States.

The authorities have attempted to capitalize on the feeling of grief and public outrage by urging all Russians to unite behind the government in a merciless war on terrorism. Some people, like film director Aleksei German, who took part in the St. Petersburg demonstration, appear ready to heed the call.

"When all limits have been crossed, when someone uses a child as a human shield against bullets and then, on his way out, cuts his throat, such a creature must be killed because our prison system is far from perfect. They are not afraid of it; they will go there with a smile," German said.

But many people say they first want to hear the truth from the Kremlin about what exactly happened in Beslan. They want to know who is responsible for the debacle amid the flood of imprecise and contradictory information being released by officials.

First in line for criticism are the authorities in North Ossetia. President Aleksandr Dzasokhov may have personally apologized for not having been able to prevent the deaths of more than 300 innocent children, teachers, and parents. But as RFE/RL correspondent Tatiana Sobol reported today from the region's capital, Vladikavkaz, that is not enough for many people.

Some 1,500 people took part in a demonstration in the city today, where expressions of grief were mixed with calls for the regional government to resign. "The group that organized the demonstration is putting forward as one of its main demands the resignation of the republic's government," Sobol said. "Practically all of the speakers at the demonstration blame the republic's leadership for the tragedy."

Valerii Takazov, head of the Ossetia cultural organization, earlier told RFE/RL that he expected the republic's leadership to be held to account. "Everyone will have to answer for their actions, including the president [of North Ossetia]," he said. "It is no secret that President Dzasokhov's popularity ratings could be better. Trust in the government and even trust in the legislature -- which was directly elected by the people -- is not at a high point."
Putin, in his conversation with foreign journalists yesterday, hit back at his critics -- especially those who link the Beslan tragedy with Moscow's iron-handed policies in Chechnya.

According to journalists' reports, demonstrators in Beslan yesterday also held a protest meeting to call for Dzasokhov's resignation. But Dzasokhov's office, when asked to react, denied any protests had taken place.

At the national level, the media -- especially newspapers -- have been especially critical of the government's handling of the entire crisis. Incredulous and even sarcastic headlines and articles abound in the national press today.

For the past several days, the popular Moscow daily "Moskovskii komsomolets" has run a rubric headlined "Chronicle of Lies," detailing initial reports put out by government officials about the hostage taking, which later turned out to be false.

The national daily "Izvestiya," in a front-page article, also issued a point-by-point analysis -- based on eyewitness accounts and unofficial sources -- which challenges the official version of events.

At the same time, the paper's editor in chief, Raf Shakirov, announced yesterday that he was pressured to resign by the publication's owner for his graphic and emotional coverage of the crisis.

"I am resigning. The problem is in the Saturday [4 September] issue that was devoted to the terrorist act in Beslan. The management at ProfMedia ['Izvestiya's' publisher] and I disagreed about the format of presenting this material. It was found too emotional and too poster-like, and [the publishers said] newspapers don't do that," Shakirov said.

The "Vedomosti" newspaper, in an editorial, lashed out at the Kremlin, saying that blaming Beslan on the global scourge of terrorism -- rather than Moscow's war in Chechnya -- was a convenient excuse. The paper also accused the authorities of trying to initially downplay this past month's other terrorist acts -- including the two plane crashes and the bombing outside a subway station in Moscow -- to divert public attention from the government's intelligence and security failures.

Putin, in his conversation with foreign journalists yesterday, hit back at his critics -- especially those who link the Beslan tragedy with Moscow's iron-handed policies in Chechnya.

Although Chechnya's separatist leadership has distanced itself from hostage taking as well as other recent acts of terror, Putin clearly indicated he does not believe them. He expressed contempt for those who suggest he should negotiate with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and his allies, saying no one had a right to tell the Kremlin it should talk to "child killers."

Putin said no public inquiry into the tragedy at Beslan should be held and that a closed-door investigation will be enough. It remains to be seen whether pressure from the Russian public and the media will force the Russian president to change his mind -- or whether the country will decide to continue backing him on his current path against terror.

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

Factbox: Major Terrorist Incidents Tied To Russian-Chechen War

For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".

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