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Russia: Mourning Period Ends For Beslan Tragedy Amid Fears Of Interethnic Violence

The 40-day mourning period for the victims of the Beslan hostage crisis has ended, and there are fears that interethnic violence could reignite in the region. The hundreds of victims of the school siege -- nearly half of them children -- were mostly North Ossetians. Relatives of the victims blame militants from neighboring Ingushetia for the tragedy. Tensions between Muslim Ingush and Christian Ossetians go back many decades.

Prague, 13 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The 40 days of formal mourning prescribed by the Russian Orthodox Church have ended for the victims of the Beslan hostage tragedy. More than 330 people, nearly half of them children, were killed in the school siege in the North Ossetian town on 1-3 September.

Yesterday, residents of Beslan lighted prayer candles and placed icons and photographs among flowers piled in the shattered gymnasium at the center of the massacre.

People in the region are still in shock. Larisa Shukaeva was a hostage at the school. Her daughter died in the violence.

"Why didn't anybody try to rescue us? The gunmen themselves said to us, 'You will find out what kind of country you live in, that no one cares about you.' And they were telling the truth," Shukaeva said. "They said, 'No one cares about you. Pray.' And we prayed and cried, all of us in the gym. And no one came to rescue us. Nobody cares about us. And even now, when we are crying, who thinks about us? Nobody."

Former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev has warned the region could be on the verge of another interethnic war.

"The Caucasus is on the threshold of a new ethnic war," Aushev said. "The war in Chechnya might look like nothing in comparison with this possible war."

The Beslan crisis is again fueling old tensions between predominately Muslim Ingush and their overwhelmingly Christian Ossetian neighbors. In 1992, the two sides fought over the status of Checheno-Ingush land appropriated by Stalin and given to North Ossetia. Hundreds were killed before Russian troops intervened. Many in Ingushetia still claim title to land now occupied by Ossetians.
"They said, 'No one cares about you. Pray.' And we prayed and cried, all of us in the gym. And no one came to rescue us." -- Beslan survivor

A statement attributed to Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev claimed responsibility for the Beslan attack, but many in North Ossetia think their neighbors in Ingushetia are to blame. They point out that ethnic Ingush were identified as being among the hostage-takers, along with Chechens, Russians, and Arabs.

Ingush President Murat Zyazikov told reporters in Moscow on 11 October that fears of an outbreak of fighting were overblown. "The people of the North Caucasus have become wiser and, moreover, they are tired of war," he said, adding that talk of a new outbreak of violence is a "provocation" that has been overplayed by media.

Oleg Kusov, RFE/RL's correspondent in Moscow, recently visited Beslan. He said that local authorities appear to be doing more to encourage violence than to preempt it, however.

"I heard myself representatives of local authorities, the highest authorities of Ossetia, saying that a criminal has a nationality," Kusov said. "By these statements, they are saying to their citizens that Ingushetia should be blamed. Newspapers on a regular basis are publishing lists of terrorists from the group that occupied the school in Beslan, and what is interesting is that the nationalities of these people are given."

No major incidents of violence were reported today, but at least one Ingush man said he was the victim of a revenge attack earlier this month.

Mogamed Chamkoev is an Ingush who lives in the Ossetian border town of Maiskyj. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that he was taken from his home and beaten by unknown assailants.

"It happened Saturday in the morning, on the 2nd of October," Chamkoev said. "They came to my place in UAZ jeeps. One was dressed in military clothes, two others in civilian clothes. They told me they wanted to talk with me and took me to the forest. They were beating me and told me to confess that I was guilty for what had happened in Beslan. They beat me very badly. They told me that Beslan is about me personally. I am sure somebody sent them. Somebody called them [on a cell phone] when they were beating me. They asked what to do with me, and the answer was to kill me."

Chamkoev said the attackers told him they intend to kill the same number of Ingush as Ossetians who had died in the Beslan siege. Chamkoev said he managed to escape from his assailants. He is recovering in a Nazran hospital from broken ribs and damaged lungs.

Some observers believe more bloodshed is unlikely, however, because people in the region have been shaken by recent events and are exhausted by conflict.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, a newspaper journalist in Beslan, Aleksandr Shvedov, said the town is reeling in grief, shock, rage, and disbelief. Dozens of burned bodies from the siege remain unidentified.

"The best word to characterize their [psychological] state is fatigue," Shvedov said. "It is immeasurable fatigue because the pain hasn't left Beslan. I participate in a school committee. Now, like 40 days ago, people continue to come, women in black scarves are coming. They press the scarves to their faces and look through the official lists [of victims] on the walls and seek to find at least some information."

Shvedov said people no longer look for the names of loved ones on these lists but instead are trying to find out if they qualify for compensation from the Russian government.

He said people are fearful of further violence because they know that if ethnic strife begins again, it will be difficult to stop.

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