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Caucasus Report: September 6, 2004

6 September 2004, Volume 7, Number 34

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS IN AFTERMATH OF BESLAN. Three days after the gun battle that precipitated the end of the Beslan hostage taking, any number of crucial questions remain unanswered.

The exact number and provenance of the hostage takers is still not known with any certainty. Initially there were said to be between 17 and 40 of them. One of the female hostages released on 2 September was quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" the following day as saying that there were "about 30" hostage takers, of whom two were women; that they were all masked; and that they claimed to be Chechens. Reuters on 2 September quoted North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev as saying that the Beslan hostage takers include both Ingush and Chechens, and that "they speak good Russian." The website for its part quoted Dzantiev as saying that there were also Ossetians and Russians among the militants. Valerii Andreev, head of the North Ossetian branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), dismissed the hostage takers' ethnicity on 2 September as irrelevant.

Late on 3 September, Andreev alleged that at least 10 of the hostage takers were Arabs. But on 6 September, the "Financial Times" quoted Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative Akhmed Zakaev as rejecting that allegation as "propaganda. If that were the case, the Russians would have shown their faces immediately." "The Washington Post" on 5 September quoted a Beslan resident as expressing disbelief: "Everyone is deceiving us. They're telling us there were Arabs. There were no Arabs." The independent Ingushetian website reported on 5 September that one dead hostage taker initially said to have been a Negro had his face burned and blackened with ash during the assault on the school building.

Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii told journalists in Beslan on 4 September that the bodies of 26 hostage takers have been recovered, and their identity is still being clarified. But the following day, Fridinskii gave the total number of terrorists as 32, of whom he said two are still alive.

As for what the hostage takers hoped to achieve, North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov said on 2 September that during negotiations that day with former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, they had said they were demanding an end to the war in Chechnya; the withdrawal from Chechnya of Russian troops; and the release of the estimated 27-30 fighters held in detention in Ingushetia for their alleged participation in the 21-22 June multiple attacks on Interior Ministry facilities in that republic.

"Gazeta" on 2 September quoted an unnamed Russian military official as identifying the commander of the Beslan hostage takers as Magomed Evloev (aka Magas), one of Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev's lieutenants, who reportedly commanded the June raids into Ingushetia. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 June, however, quoted Major General Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian counterterrorism headquarters in the North Caucasus, as saying that Magomed Evloev was killed in a shoot-out the previous day. On 4 September, claimed that "Magas" is not in fact Magomed Evloev, but a former Ingush police officer named Ali Musaevich Taziev; and on 5 September, the same website reported that none of the 29 dead hostage takers bears any resemblance to Taziev.

According to on 3 September, the commander of the hostage takers was Chechen field commander Doku Umarov, whom Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov named in summer 2002 as commander of the southwest Chechen front. Umarov reportedly had some 1,000 fighters under his command. But reported on 4 September that although one of the dead hostage takers has been identified as a Chechen named Umarov, the man in question was not Doku but in all likelihood one of his relatives.

In the afternoon of 3 September, when fighting for the school was still continuing, unnamed Russian military officials quoted by ITAR-TASS suggested that the hostage taking was financed by an Arab named Abu Omar al-Seif, whom they identified as "Al-Qaeda's representative in Chechnya." But "Die Welt" on 6 September quoted unnamed Western intelligence services as expressing skepticism. The paper reasoned that even if Russian claims that the hostage takers included some Arabs prove to be true, that does not necessarily prove Al-Qaeda was involved. Even more crucially, "Die Welt" made the point that Al-Qaeda "does not work with military organizations that operate outside Afghanistan and Iraq."

The most serious question, however, is what precipitated the use of force at midday local time on 3 September, when talks were still under way with the hostage takers on recovering the bodies of adult hostages killed two days earlier. At that juncture, the school building was surrounded by hundreds of Russian troops. But apparently no effort had been made to cordon off a security area to prevent unauthorized persons venturing within gunshot range of the building. On the contrary, parents of the hostages, some of them armed, were allowed to keep vigil in the vicinity, "The Guardian" reported on 4 September. Some of those parents, according to FSB official Andreev, returned fire on 3 September when the hostage takers began shooting at hostages who sought to escape through holes apparently blasted in the side of the school building by Russian special troops. At that juncture, Russian forces launched an all-out onslaught, fighting their way through the school in a bid to neutralize the hostage takers, some of whom managed to escape but were later apprehended.

British security experts quoted on 4 September by "The Guardian" criticized the Russian military for a total lack of control, command, and coordination. One former Special Air Service (SAS) operative described it as one of the worst hostage-release efforts he had ever seen or read about, pointing to an absence of basic planning on the part of the Russian military: "They should have made some plan in case it went wrong. When the shooting started, there was no military backup. Troops did not seem to have radios to communicate." A second former SAS operative argued that the Russian special forces "should have planned an assault the first night and hit hard and fast."

A Stratfor analysis dated 4 September similarly quoted unnamed Russian security experts as arguing that special forces units could have been deployed immediately from Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Mozdok in order to strike immediately at the hostage takers before they had a chance to mine the school building and take up defensive positions. That analysis further suggested that the Russian authorities misinterpreted the hostage takers' intentions from the outset and proceeded on the assumption that it would be possible to negotiate an agreement similar to that struck with Basaev during the Budennovsk hostage taking in June 1995, to let the hostage takers escape in return for the release of the hostages. The repeated assertions by Dzasokhov and Andreev on the morning of 3 September that the Russian authorities would not resort to force to try to secure the hostages' release substantiate that hypothesis. Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, had said on 2 September that "Our main goal is to save the lives and health of the hostages, and the activities of our forces involved in the liberation of hostages is subordinate to this goal."

In light of the chaotic and conflicting eyewitness reports surrounding the final shoot-out, it is impossible to say with any certainty whether the Russian assault was the spontaneous and unplanned response to shooting by the hostage takers or, as President Maskhadov's representative Akhmed Zakaev suggested in a 4 September statement, the result of a deliberate decision by President Putin to preclude any negotiations with the hostages that would involve Maskhadov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2004).

Even before the 3 September bloodbath, Western press commentaries were arguing that the sole hope for ending the war in Chechnya lies in beginning negotiations with Maskhadov, seen as representing the moderate wing of the Chechen resistance. But Putin's previous conflation of Maskhadov with terrorism and Al-Qaeda suggests the likelihood he would condone any such talks is remote. On 4 September, reported that the previous day the FSB cordoned off the homes in Znamenskoe, and then arrested the elderly father of Maskhadov's wife Kusama, together with her sister and two brothers and their families, including small children.

Finally, it is impossible to predict how the hostage taking will impact either on domestic politics in North Ossetia, or on relations between North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia, should reports that some of the hostage takers were ethnic Ingush prove correct. According to some Western journalists, Beslan residents blame the federal and the republican authorities in equal measure for their inept handling of the crisis. "The Washington Post" reported on 5 September that North Ossetian President Dzasokhov was shouted down at a meeting with townspeople the previous morning, even though he tried to persuade President Putin that "it is our duty to tell people here the truth." "The Guardian" on 6 September quoted one local man as branding Dzasokhov "a whore." The same British paper also cited unconfirmed Russian media reports that Ossetians had headed across the internal border into Ingushetia and snatched 10 Ingush men in retaliation. (Liz Fuller)

UNPAID DEBTS CLOUD AZERBAIJANI-TURKISH RELATIONS. Efforts by the Turkish company Saka Korkmaz Pazarlama to recover several million dollars in debts for equipment supplied over 10 years ago to Azerbaijan's Agriculture Ministry risk souring bilateral relations, and may ultimately cost Agriculture Minister Irshad Aliyev his job, according to two articles published on 20 and 25 August in the online daily

In 1992-93, Saka Korkmaz invested some $3.2 million in the construction of and equipment for a textile factory in Gyanja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city. Azerbaijan's Agriculture Ministry was supposed to repay the debt by supplying cotton fiber to the value of $4 million, but as harvests plummeted, it was unable to do so. In addition, the ministry asked for that sum to be reduced because, it claimed, the production capacity of the completed factory was 12 percent less than required. Saka Korkmaz took the case to court, ignoring requests by the Azerbaijani government and the Turkish Foreign Ministry to consider a compromise, and the court ruled in favor of the Turkish company. Consequently, on 11 May, the Turkish authorities impounded an Azerbaijani Airlines plane, whereupon the Azerbaijani government paid Saka Korkmaz $870,000. On 13 July the Turkish authorities impounded a second Azerbaijani Airlines plane in Trabzon. They have also seized two Azerbaijani merchant ships in Turkish ports.

Azerbaijan has formed a special government commission to resolve the debt problem, according to on 25 August. The issue may also be raised at the level of the Azerbaijani-Turkish intergovernmental commission for economic cooperation, as Turkey too has unpaid debts to state-owned Azerbaijani companies. The online daily argued out that while theoretically the Turkish government could not and should not have attempted to influence the judiciary to secure a ruling favorable for Azerbaijan, in practice it could have induced Saka Korkmaz to drop the lawsuit. The daily construed the fact that Ankara chose not to do so as reflecting a deterioration in bilateral relations since the advent to power in November 2002 of the Erdogan government. Bilateral economic ties, too, are weakening. Bilateral trade fell from $326 million in 2000 to $295 million in 2001 and has continued to decline since then. At the same time, Turkey's share in Azerbaijan's foreign trade has fallen from 29 percent in 1997 to just 6 percent, Caucasus Press reported on 24 August, quoting Ahmed Erentok, chairman of the Turkish-Azeri Business Union. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The brutal Chechnya conflict is crying out for a political solution. Yet manipulating democracy to produce a predetermined outcome is neither fair nor a solution. Rather it will serve to entrench both sides in this unwinnable war of attrition in which civilians continue to be the primary victims." -- International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights Executive Director Aaron Rhodes, in a statement pegged to the 29 August Chechen election. Quoted by Interfax on 1 September.

"I have no reason to believe that the election in Chechnya was undemocratic." -- German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, quoted by dpa on 31 August.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Chechen war was 'over' long ago. But the underlying causes of that war have never been dealt with, and the war itself has had a devastating effect on Chechen society. Deeper, longer-lasting reconciliation between Russia and Chechnya requires not the Russian imposition of another puppet government on Chechnya but a more profound search for a way in which the two can live side by side in peace. This must involve negotiation with moderate Chechens -- even moderate Chechen separatists -- and the creation of a truly representative Chechen government. If, that is, it is not too late already." -- Editorial in "The Washington Post," 4 September.

"Mr. Putin has successfully routed mainstream Chechen separatists under the republic's last freely elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, on the conventional battlefield. But that just created an opening for the murderous extremists who have been slaughtering innocent bystanders in recent days. President Putin has never been strong on diplomatic nuance. But unless he now opens a serious negotiating channel with legitimate Chechen leaders outside the Moscow-backed puppet government, things can only get worse. And if they do, Russia will not be the only nation that pays the price." -- Editorial in "The New York Times," 4 September.