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Russia: On Beslan, Putin Looks Beyond Chechnya, Sees International Terror

Russia has been fighting a brutal war in Chechnya the past five years. Over the same period, Chechen militants have carried out multiple acts of terrorism on Russian soil. Yet to hear Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent days, the Russia-Chechnya conflict seemingly had little to do with the school hostage crisis in Beslan. In spite of claims by the hostage takers they were acting for an independent Chechnya, Putin -- instead -- pinned the blame on "international terrorists." RFE/RL reports Putin may be hoping to legitimize the Chechen war as part of the wider global struggle against terrorism -- and at the same time discrediting Chechens' aspirations for independence.

Prague, 7 September (RFE/RL) -- Putin, in recent days, has tried to separate the school siege in North Ossetia from Russia's policy in Chechnya.

In a major address on 4 September -- the day after Russian troops stormed the school held by gunmen in the southern city of Beslan -- Putin made no mention of Chechnya at all. Instead, he put the blame on what he called "international terrorism."

"We are dealing not just with individual, isolated acts of terrorism. We are dealing with a direct intervention of 'international terror' against Russia, with a total, cruel, and all-powerful war, which again and again takes the lives of our fellow countrymen," Putin said.

He made this claim in spite of strong evidence that the hostage taking was done in the name of Chechen independence -- and very likely with some Chechen participation.
It's not clear why Putin might want to diminish a potential Chechen role in the tragedy.

On 3 September, shortly before Russian troops stormed the school, North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov told reporters the militants had demanded Chechen independence as a precondition for releasing their hostages. And on 6 September, Russian state television broadcast a man identified as one of the hostage takers. He said his group was directed by Chechens. "We were gathered in a forest by a person known as the 'Colonel.' And they said that we must seize a school in Beslan," he said. "They said this task was ordered by [separatist former Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov and [Chechen rebel leader Shamil] Basaev."

It's not clear why Putin might want to diminish a potential Chechen role in the tragedy. After all, Putin came to power in 1999 threatening to crush the Chechen fighters. In the past, he's rarely hesitated to blame Chechens for acts of terror.

Magnus Ranstorp, the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, told RFE/RL that Putin obviously sees some advantages in "internationalizing" the recent acts of violence. "It's a very politically sensitive issue," he said. "It is of course more advantageous for Putin to make that claim -- that there is an international connection -- in order to draw [Russia's war in Chechnya] into the overall global war on terrorism."

Putin not only stands to gain international support, but he can also discredit what many see as Chechens' legitimate aspirations for independence.

The subject of the extent of Chechens' involvement in international terror -- or the involvement in the Chechen struggle of Al-Qaeda and its associates -- remains hotly debated. Ranstorp said it's undeniable that at some level there are connections between Chechen militants and Al-Qaeda. He said the Chechen cause -- as with other struggles involving Islamic peoples -- has served as a rallying cry.

"There have been long-standing units within the Chechen rebels, within the Chechen guerrilla groups, that have been individuals within Al-Qaeda. The Chechen struggle in and of itself has been cannon fodder ideologically for Al-Qaeda. There have been many members that have traveled to Chechnya to try to take part in that struggle -- as they have traveled to Bosnia and to Kashmir and to other places where Islam is seemingly under siege. So there is certainly, on the propaganda level, a close connection between the Chechen struggle and Al-Qaeda's ideology," Ranstorp said.

Ranstorp added that Chechen expertise in assembling what are known as improvised exploding devices -- in effect, homemade bombs -- has been imitated by terrorist groups around the world.

The separatist Chechen leadership under Maskhadov has strongly denied it is behind the hostage-taking incident, or that the attack was part of a wider Islamist struggle.

A spokesman for Maskhadov, Akhmed Zakaev, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from London: "[The] claims of President Maskhadov's involvement in this terrorist act are part of a well-planned misinformation campaign, which also includes statements by [Russian] officials that there were Arab and African mercenaries among the terrorists. Their goal is to explain this terrorist act as being a part of some foreign conspiracies. Those are lies."

He instead sought to link the school siege directly to Putin's policies in Chechnya. "The terrorist act in Beslan is the work of local radical groups which are supported by people overwhelmed by a feeling of personal revenge for the brutalities of the Russian Army. These groups are a direct consequence of Putin's punitive policy. If this policy continues the radicalization of the Caucasus will only increase," Zakaev said.

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".

For the latest news on the U.S.-led War on Terror, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The War on Terror".
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.