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Putin says russia faces full war to divide nation { September 5 2004 }

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September 5, 2004
Putin Says Russia Faces Full 'War' to Divide Nation

MOSCOW, Sept. 4 - In a rare address to his nation, coming at a time of grave crisis, President Vladimir V. Putin said Saturday that the school siege in the southern city of Beslan was an attack on all of Russia and called for the mobilization of society to resist what he called "a total and full-scale war" to splinter the country.

Mr. Putin spoke as the death toll from the violent end of the hostage crisis at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan rose to 330; half of the dead were children. Officials warned that the number of dead would rise further in the city, not far from Chechnya, as workers searched the school's charred wreckage and as more victims succumbed to their wounds in hospitals.

"This is challenge to all of Russia, to all our people," Mr. Putin said. "This is an attack against all of us."

[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, the Interfax news agency said, as reported by the Associated Press. Including the militants, at least 380 people died, according to the A.P.]

Mr. Putin sought to answer the seething anger that many here have expressed after a series of terrorist acts that in 10 wrenching days have killed more than 500 people. The worst was in Beslan, where heavily armed insurgents, some wearing explosives, seized the school on Wednesday, corralled 1,200 schoolchildren, parents and teachers into its gymnasium and threatened to kill them. On Friday, large explosions caused a panic and Russian troops charged the building as children began to escape, but hundreds died in the melee.

Authorities said they believed that the terrorists were Islamic militants, mostly Chechens.

Mr. Putin called the siege "a horrible tragedy." Then, speaking of the sweep of Russia's post-Soviet history, he criticized corruption in the judiciary, the inefficiency of law enforcement and the difficult transition to capitalism that he acknowledged had left few resources to secure Russia's borders in a changing and dangerous epoch.

For Mr. Putin, who projects the image of unswerving leadership, it was a striking acknowledgment that not all was well under his watch.

"We have to admit that we failed to recognize the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our country and the world as a whole," said Mr. Putin, who spoke for 10 minutes, standing alone in front of Russia's flag and a wood-paneled backdrop. "At any rate, we failed to react to them adequately. We demonstrated our weakness, and the weak are beaten."

Mr. Putin did not accept personal responsibility for Russia's failings, but he echoed a feeling of helplessness and fear that has shaken the country, demanding, as many here have, that security and law-enforcement agencies work more efficiently to counter the threat of terrorism. He also suggested that Russian society itself needed to develop to succeed in the fight.

"Events in other countries prove that terrorists meet the most effective rebuff where they confront not only the power of the state, but also an organized and united civil society," he said.

He did not elaborate, but many Russians have been citing the experiences of the United States, Israel and Spain as more effective in protecting their citizens. A policeman, guarding Chekhov's former estate in the town of Melikhovo, on Saturday contrasted Russia's helplessness to the resolve of the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Our government is to blame," said the officer, who would only give his first name, Valery. "They do not take care of their citizens. In the U.S., after Sept. 11, there were not any more attacks. Here they have not done anything. We get kicked from all sides."

Mr. Putin appeared determined to show that the government would and could act. He said he would soon propose measures to strengthen the nation's unity, to coordinate the political and security structures of Russia's Caucasian republics, and to create a new emergency-management system. The failures of the existing system were painfully obvious in the government's confused and contradictory responses after the bombings of two passenger airliners on Aug. 24 and during the siege in Beslan, in the southern republic of North Ossetia.

Although he made a broad appeal for national unity in the face of terror, he did not mention the war in Chechnya, a struggle linked to all of the attacks that have roiled the country. That suggested he would not consider changing the Kremlin's strategy there, despite years of war and atrocities that have left the Chechen people embittered.

Mr. Putin did not apologize or express remorse for the mounting terror toll, for which critics have placed blame in part on the Kremlin's harsh repressions in Chechnya, but he addressed "those who lost the dearest in their life, their children."

In Beslan, the physical and psychological toll of the siege and its deadly end on Friday continued to mount. At the city's House of Culture, which had turned into a makeshift crisis center, the authorities compiled a list of 205 hostages who remained unaccounted for. Workers and investigators searched the school's wreckage for bodies and evidence; by midday they had discovered 237 bodies.

More than 700 people were wounded, and more than 400 remained in the hospital on Saturday night, 58 of them gravely wounded children, according to Lev Dzugayev, a spokesman for North Ossetia's president. At least seven children died of their wounds on Saturday.

A day after the siege ended with two last blasts and hours of firefights, new details emerged of the attack, which involved more than 30 heavily armed fighters, including Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians and, officials said, some foreigners.

Sergei N. Fridinsky, Russia's deputy prosecutor general for the region, said in remarks reported by news agencies that 10 of 26 fighters killed in the siege's violent climax were foreigners, but neither he nor other officials provided any details or evidence of their origin.

A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three of the fighters had been arrested after the chaos on Friday and were being questioned.

Maj. Gen. Valery A. Andreyev, director of North Ossetia's branch of the Federal Security Service, said Saturday that preparations for the hostage-taking might have begun in the summer, saying the fighters may have infiltrated the school and smuggled in explosives and weapons during a renovation.

Before dawn on Saturday, Mr. Putin flew briefly to Beslan, where he visited a hospital and vowed to relentlessly pursue not only those involved in the siege but also any others who would "foment interethnic hatred" across the volatile republics of the northern Caucasus.

Mr. Putin, facing both sympathy and criticism at home and abroad, returned to the Kremlin and, in his address, to the theme of ethnic conflicts and divisions that, he said, terrorists sought to exploit.

"Terrorists think that they are stronger, that they can intimidate us, paralyze our will, decompose our society," Mr. Putin said Saturday night. "It seems that we have a choice: to resist or to cave in and agree with their claims, to give up and allow them to destroy and to take apart Russia, in the hope that eventually they will leave us alone."

Noting his oath of office to protect the nation, he added, "I am convinced that in fact there is no choice."

C. J. Chivers contributed reporting from Beslanfor this article and Sophia Kishkovsky fromMelikhovo.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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