Russian parliamentary commission to investigate school hostage crisis

Thursday, September 9th 2004, 7:17 pm
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Apparently bending to widespread public pressure, President Vladimir Putin agreed Friday to a parliamentary inquiry into the bloody standoff at a southern Russian school, after having previously said none was necessary.

Putin had already agreed to an internal investigation into the attack, apparently staged by separatists from breakaway Chechnya, that ended with the deaths of at least 330 hostages.

The seizure of the school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan and its bloody conclusion raised questions about the capabilities of Russian law-enforcement and security agencies.

``We are thoroughly interested in receiving a complete, objective picture of the tragic events connected with the seizure of the hostages,'' Putin said in televised comments.

Putin spoke after meeting Sergei Mironov, chairman of the upper house of parliament, called the Federation Council. Mironov told Putin the chamber wanted to form the investigative commission.

Although the Federation Council largely follows Putin's lead, the inquiry could constitute a relatively independent and public review of the crisis. There were no immediate details about when it would begin work or what exactly it would investigate.

The estimated 30 militants raided the school on Sept. 1 and herded more than 1,000 adults and children into a gymnasium. Two days later, Russian officials say, one of the bombs wired in the gym blew up accidentally, and some of the hostages tried to flee. The attackers opened fire, and Russian special forces troops assaulted the building.

Russian lawmakers will consider a series of anti-terrorism proposals when they reconvene Sept. 22, including tighter controls on foreigners, restoration of the death penalty and a color-coded alert system similar to one employed in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Gazeta newspaper reported Friday.

Measures already announced by Putin include adding police to the security teams screening passengers and bags at airports.

North Ossetia's parliament, meanwhile, approved a new prime minister to head the government that was dismissed earlier in the week in the wake of angry demonstrations over authorities' failure to prevent the attack. Alan Boradzov, the republic's former transportation minister, was nominated by President Alexander Dzasokhov, who dismissed the regional government but did not step down himself.

On Thursday, security officials had identified six of the militants who seized the school as being from Chechnya, drawing a strong connection to the Chechen insurgents who have been fighting Russian forces for years.

None of those identified so far were Arabs, undercutting the government's contention that Arabs were involved.

According to the officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, the other four militants who have been identified came from Ingushetia, which is sandwiched between North Ossetia and Chechnya and was targeted in brazen coordinated attacks against police that killed 90 people in June. The presence of Ingush raiders threatens to inflame long-standing tensions between Ingush and ethnic Ossetians, who are the majority in the republic.

Putin and Russian investigators have said about 10 of the roughly 30 attackers were Arabs, but authorities have not publicly provided evidence of the assertion. Officials who spoke Thursday made no mention of Arabs being among the militants.

Russian officials repeatedly have cast the military campaign in Chechnya as part of a war against international terrorism _ a battle they say Western countries have hindered by granting asylum to Chechen figures and questioning Kremlin policy in Chechnya.

To push the point that Russia is a victim of international terror _ and not just of violence spawned by the Chechen conflict, which critics say Kremlin policies have aggravated _ Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York during the Sept. 11 attacks.

``When our Western partners urge us to rethink our policy and tactics in Chechnya, I would advise them not to interfere in Russian internal matters _ which they do by granting asylum to terrorists who are directly to blame for the tragedy of the Chechen people,'' Lavrov said after the meeting.

He did not name specific countries, but Russia was particularly angered by Britain's granting of refugee status to Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, and by U.S. asylum for Ilyas Akhmadov, whom Maskhadov named his foreign minister while he was Chechnya's president in the late 1990s.

Russia has announced a $10.3 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maskhadov and another leading Chechen rebel, Shamil Basayev.

On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. and British embassies in Moscow to demand the extradition of Zakayev and Akhmadov. Chanting ``Shame, shame,'' demonstrators brandished signs, including one saying: ``The U.S. is sponsoring the war in the Caucasus.''

Russia has been beset by terror in the past two weeks, suffering three attacks that have killed more than 400 people.

The attacks _ the downing of two airliners apparently by explosions, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station and the school seizure _ prompted officials to offer a huge cash reward for information leading to the killing or capture of top Chechen rebel leaders.