BESLAN, Russia – Attackers who seized more than 1,000 hostages in a provincial middle school might have smuggled in a large cache of weapons, possibly disguised as construction equipment, in the weeks before the siege, Russian officials said Saturday as the death toll rose to 340, nearly half of them children.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a nationally televised address, called the hostage standoff that ended in a nightmare of explosions and gunfire Friday “an act unprecedented in its inhumanness and cruelty” and “an attack against our country.”
In an extraordinary admission of responsibility, Putin said that inadequate spending for defense since the collapse of the Soviet Union and corruption in the judicial system have left the nation vulnerable.
“We could have been more effective if we had acted professionally, and at the right moment … (but) we proved unable to react adequately,” Putin said in the speech, the first to address a spate of attacks that have killed 440 Russians in the past two weeks alone. “We showed ourselves to be weak, and the weak get beaten.”
Earlier in the day, Putin flew briefly to this shattered town in southern Russia, visiting a hospital where the wounded were being treated.
On Saturday, authorities laid out the bodies of all 26 hostage-takers in the schoolyard here. Authorities believe they are linked to rebels from Chechnya, the nearby republic that has been engaged in a separatist war with Russian forces for most of the past 10 years, or neighboring Ingushetia, where rebel violence also has broken out. Russian officials said 10 of the fighters were Arabs but provided no proof.
Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, elected Chechnya’s president during its brief period of autonomy in the mid-1990s, strongly condemned the hostage seizure Saturday. Russians publicly have linked the school seizure to notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, an Islamic radical who is believed to have masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Russia over the past several years.
As authorities struggled to understand how the 26 hostage-takers could have mounted a furious gun battle with elite Russian “spetznaz” commandos that lasted nearly 10 hours, a Federal Security Service official said investigators believe the attackers might have sneaked in weaponry before the siege.
“Part of the weapons and ammunition were brought in and hidden in advance on the territory of the school where the terrorist act took place – we are carefully looking at this possibility,” said Sergei Andreyev, head of the bureau’s office in the republic of North Ossetia, where the attack occurred.
The question of how the attackers managed to bring in so much firepower has troubled investigators from the beginning. With several former hostages now reporting that they were forced to dig up the floor at the school to unveil a cache of weapons underneath, suspicion turned to remodeling at the school over the summer.
A worker who entered the building after the siege ended also reported that he saw false-fronted walls, once covered in temporary stucco, that were gouged out during the standoff to serve as sheltered firing positions.
Deputy prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky said Saturday that authorities have not linked the hostage seizure and the reconstruction contract “in any way.”
But Lev Dzudayev, an aide to the North Ossetian president, said investigators believe the hostage-takers would not have been able to quickly carry in the amount of weaponry and ammunition deployed in Friday’s firefight.
In response to reports that a Chechen construction company might have had a contract for remodeling the school building over the summer, Dzudayev said investigators “are looking into the period of time when the school building was being repaired.”
Analysts predicted that Putin would respond with further clampdowns and broader leeway for law enforcement.
“After Beslan, I’m sure he will put some limits on democracy, on the media,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Putin will continue to blame world terrorism. He will continue to blame Russian journalists who have some ‘connection,’ who ‘propagate’ terrorism.”
In Beslan, where authorities estimate that 700 people were injured in the explosions and 540 of them – including 330 children – are hospitalized, there was little enthusiasm for the president’s speech.
“It’s like brandishing his fists after a fight,” complained Natella Korayeva, whose cousin’s 20-month-old son was rescued Friday with what looked like a stab wound in the abdomen.
“If he had qualities of a true leader, he would have been here when the battle was blowing up. Now, when everything quiets down, we don’t need his help or assistance or compassion,” she said.
“No one needs it now. It’s just talk, talk, talk,” said Zina, 40, who declined to give her last name. “It was necessary to act before, and when kids are taken hostage, it’s already too late to talk or do anything,” she said. “He should have dropped everything and gone to Beslan on the first day.”
But businessman Eduard Gugayev said Putin needs and deserves the public’s support.
“Russia will learn from this experience, and the entire world will learn from this experience too,” Gugayev said. “And this experience will only strengthen Russia’s will not to back off. And Putin will not back off, providing he has the support of the nation, and that’s exactly the point he made in today’s speech. He already has international support. All he needs now is our helping hand and our unity.”