Beslan mourns as Putin vows tough response to "all-out war" by terrorists

Sunday, September 5th 2004, 9:17 am
By: News On 6

BESLAN, Russia (AP) _ Wails of mourning echoed through the streets of this southern Russian town on Sunday, and the region's top police officer offered his resignation in the wake of the school hostage-taking that left at least 350 people dead.

Families were beginning the first of what will be a long and wrenching series of funerals _ with the death toll still unsure and liable to rise. Some 180 people remained missing after the chaos that ended the standoff at the school. At the same time, many bodies remained unidentified, and it was unclear whether some of the missing were among the unnamed dead.

The number of dead forced a dramatic expansion of the cemetery in the industrial town of 30,000. Dozens of men dug graves in a football field-sized tract next to the cemetery Sunday morning, while surveyors across the road marked out new plots with wooden stakes and string.

A shaken President Vladimir Putin went on national television Saturday to make a rare admission of Russian weakness in the face of an ``all-out war'' by terrorists. He told the Russian people that they must mobilize against terrorism and promised wide-ranging reforms to toughen security forces and root out corruption.

``We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten,'' he said in an address aimed at addressing the grief, shock and anger felt by many after a string of terrorist attacks that have killed some 450 people in the past two weeks, apparently in connection with the war in Chechnya.

As a light rain fell, funeral processions snaked through the streets of Beslanon the way to the cemetery. Weeping mourners placed flowers and wreaths at the graves, including one where two sisters were being laid to rest together.

At the school at the center of the tragedy, window sills were strewn with red and pink roses, and abandoned children's shoes littered the floor. People clutched photos of their relatives whom they had not found among either the living or the dead.

Coffin lids stood outside the entrances to apartment buildings, and wailing could be heard from courtyards where families were cutting up meat for ritual meals.

``I lost my boy,'' cried Svetlana Debloyeva, 42, whose rounds of hospitals and morgues have turned up no sign of her 11-year-old son Zaur. The two became separated during the chaotic, bloody end of the hostage crisis.

The regional health ministry said 180 people were missing after the three-day hostage crisis, which ended in a bloody wave of explosions and gunfire Friday when militants set off bombs rigged in the school gymnasium and commandos stormed the building.

Russian media speculated that some of the missing could be among the wounded who were brought to various hospitals in the southern Russian region, unconscious or in too deep a state of shock to be able to identify themselves.

Also, many of the dead still had not been identified. The Interfax news agency said 184 bodies had been matched with names by mid-afternoon Sunday.

There were conflicting official reports of the death toll _ in part because of the large number of body fragments collected at the school. A duty officer at the North Ossetian health ministry said Sunday that 350 victims had been killed, but the region's deputy health minister, Taimuraz Revazov, later said only 324 were confirmed dead. Interfax quoted North Ossetian government spokesman Lev Dzugayev as saying the toll stood at 338.

More than 540 people were wounded _ mostly children. Medical officials said 423 people remained hospitalized Sunday, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said Saturday that 35 attackers _ heavily-armed and explosive-laden men and women who were reportedly demanding independence for Chechnya _ were killed in 10 hours of battles that shook the area around the school with gunfire and explosions.

However, Russian Deputy Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky said Sunday that according to the latest information, 32 terrorists had been involved in the hostage-taking, and the bodies of 30 of them had been found, Interfax reported.

Including the militants, more than 350 people died in the tragedy.

Three suspects were detained in Beslan on Saturday and they took part in identifying the militants, Interfax reported, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.

Putin took a defiant tone in his speech, acknowledging Russia's weaknesses, but blaming it on the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign foes seeking to tear apart Russia and on corrupt officials. He said Russians could no longer live ``carefree'' and must all confront terrorism.

Measures would be taken, Putin promised, to overhaul the law enforcement organs, which he acknowledged had been infected by corruption, and tighten borders.

``We are obliged to create a much more effective security system and to demand action from our law enforcement organs that would be adequate to the level and scale of the new threats,'' he said.

North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev offered his resignation on Sunday morning, said Alexander Andreyev of the southern regional branch of the Russian Interior Ministry.

``After what happened in Beslan, I don't have the right to occupy this post as an officer and as a man,'' ITAR-Tass quoted Dzantiyev as saying.

Channel One television quoted a regional spokesman as saying that the resignation had not yet been accepted.

The militants seized the school on the first day of classes on Wednesday, herding hundreds of children, parents who had been dropping their kids off, and other adults into the gymnasium, which the militants promptly wired with explosives _ including bombs hanging from the basketball hoops. The packed gym became sweltering, and the hostage-takers refused to allow in food or water.

Russian officials said the final bloodbath began when explosions were apparently set off by the militants _ possibly by accident _ as emergency workers entered the school courtyard to collect the bodies of hostages killed in the initial raid Wednesday.

Hostages fled during the blasts, and the militants opened fire on them, prompting security forces to open fire and commandos to move in, officials said.

The explosions tore through the roof of the gymnasium, sending wreckage down on hostages, killing many. Many survivors emerged naked covered in ashes and soot, their feet bloody from jumping barefoot out of broken windows to escape.