Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Incensed by the alleged presence of ethnic Ingush among the 32 Beslan hostage takers, many North Ossetians are demanding vengeance and threatening to retaliate for the slaughter of their children -- even though it remains unclear whether the captors alone should be blamed for the staggering death toll.
RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service correspondent Aslanbek Dadayev recently returned to Ingushetia from Beslan, where he covered the crisis. He said tension is running high between the two ethnic groups -- as witnessed by recent incidents in Kartsa, an ethnic Ingush village in North Ossetia.
"[On 5 and 6 September], reports said a group of Ossetians attempted to enter the village to kill people there, or God knows what. But local police managed to calm them down. They dispersed the mob, told the Ingush no one would harm them and reportedly convinced them to stay [in Kartsa]. Local authorities are doing everything they can to prevent such incidents, but people are so desperate for revenge that there is a real danger now [that an interethnic feud may break out anew]," Dadayev said.
The origins of the 1992 Ingush-Ossetian conflict go back to the final years of World War II, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the entire population of the Checheno-Ingush autonomous republic deported to Central Asia for alleged collaboration with Nazi occupation troops.
Like most other deported peoples, Ingush and Chechens were able to return home in the late 1950s. Thousands of repatriates, however, discovered they had lost their property following a Soviet decision to abolish the Checheno-Ingush republic and transfer its predominantly Ingush Prigorodnyi region to neighboring North Ossetia.
Bayev warned that the estimated 30,000 ethnic Ingush who have returned to North Ossetia over the past decade may fall victim to renewed interethnic violence.
The Checheno-Ingush republic was restored in 1957, but the Prigorodnyi region and the Ingush-populated areas of Ordzhonikidze -- as North Ossetia's capital Vladikavkaz was then known -- remained under Ossetian control.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, North Ossetia's Ingush population reiterated demands that ethnic Ossetians return lands and houses acquired during the war. Tensions mounted, and a short conflict eventually broke out between the two communities.
Between 250 and several thousand people were estimated killed in the fighting in October-November 1992, before Russian troops intervened.
Twelve years later, wounds have still not healed and regional experts fear last week's hostage crisis may unleash old anger.
Pavel Bayev is a Caucasus specialist at the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute (PRIO). He said regional and federal authorities must take urgent steps to calm tensions sparked by the Beslan tragedy.
Otherwise, Bayev warned, the estimated 30,000 ethnic Ingush who have returned to North Ossetia over the past decade may fall victim to renewed interethnic violence.
"There is a fairly substantial Ingush population in the Prigorodnyi district," Bayev said. "These people have returned home, some with official backing, others without. Naturally they are the most vulnerable, the most defenseless, the most likely to fall victim to that legitimate anger that is currently growing [among Ossetians]. This is why I believe steps should be taken urgently in North Ossetia to prevent possible [violence]. To close the border with Ingushetia is not enough. It is in the outskirts of Vladikavkaz [where Ingush live] that there is the greatest danger."
Bayev said he fears ethnic Ossetian policemen dispatched to Kartsa and the neighboring village of Chermen might not only prove unable to protect local Ingush, they might even side with Ossetians in the event of ethnic unrest.
Russian authorities claim the Beslan crisis is linked to international terrorism and that the hijackers also included Chechens, Arabs, and Uzbeks. But North Ossetians are focusing most of their anger on their Ingush neighbors -- something Bayev said is a result of still-vivid memories of the unrest 12 years ago.
"This is a consequence of the fact that things couldn't be settled in full after 1992," Bayev said. "The Ingush are the Ossetians' immediate neighbors. For the [Ossetians], the Chechens are just 'our neighbors' neighbors.' Vladikavkaz is within a stone's throw of Ingushetia and the Prigorodnyi district is very close to Beslan. For [the Ossetians], the Ingush are a much more immediate concern because they are in direct contact with them."
Dadayev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service also said he believes the North Ossetians' obsession with alleged Ingush involvement in the Beslan events stems directly from the 1992 ethnic strife. Yet he said Chechen refugees living in Vladikavkaz are also feeling the consequences of last week's tragedy.
"[On 6 September] I spoke with a Chechen woman who lives there and whose daughter studies medicine in Vladikavkaz. She told me that when [her daughter] went to class, her Ossetian classmates and friends looked at her askance. They refused to greet her, or even talk to her. She couldn't stand it, so she went home. Her professors told her that, for her own sake, she should temporarily leave North Ossetia and go to either Ingushetia or Chechnya. Already some Chechen and Ingush students have left [North] Ossetia by bus," Dadayev said.
Dadayev said a man he met in Vladikavkaz vowed to "slit the throat of the first male Chechen he met in the street." Yet he said he believes such cases are isolated and that most Ossetians, indifferent to Russian claims of an international terrorist plot, are putting full blame for the massacre on the Ingush minority.
Russian leaders are urging North Ossetia's population to prevent the Beslan tragedy from turning into an "internal conflict." They reject any link between the crisis and Moscow's war in Chechnya, saying the aim of the hostage takers was to sow interethnic hatred in the North Caucasus region. This, observers say, is something that can only add fuel to the North Ossetian resentment of the Ingush.
Bayev of PRIO said Russian authorities are "panicking."
As he put it, "They don't know what consequences the Beslan crisis will bring. Nor do they know where these consequences will be felt first."