Even as flames burst through the windows of Beslan's School No. 1 and rescue workers carried out corpse after corpse with missing limbs, Russian state television was putting a positive spin on things. "Practically the whole school is under the control of special forces," an NTV announcer repeated every 10 minutes this afternoon. "The vast majority of child hostages are alive." A few hundred yards away, volunteers loaded half-naked and bloodied kids, once dressed in their finest for the Sept. 1 start of school, into rickety private cars and ambulances for the drive to the hospital. "If the Russians hadn't started shooting, we all would have died there of hunger," said Alla Gadieva, 24.
So ended one of the most savage and puzzling acts of terror in recent memory. Last Wednesday morning, a band of some 20 fighters seized students, parents and teachers outside a North Ossetian school near Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. They demanded Russia withdraw its troops and declare an end to the decadelong war on its southern flank. After a three-day standoff, Russian forces took over the school, freeing several hundred dazed hostages who had had barely anything to eat or drink since the start of the ordeal. At least 150 were dead and hundreds more wounded, reported Russian authorities at the siege's end. Those figures, as well the overall estimate of the number of people held inside the building, could climb as more details emerge.
The severity of the attack made Russians temporarily forget the string of ordeals they had already suffered. Beginning Aug. 24, terrorists perpetrated five separate assaults over a period of eight days. First, a bomb went off at a Moscow bus stop injuring four people. A few hours later, suicide bombers brought down two passenger planes within three minutes, killing all 90 on board both craft. One week later, another suspected suicide bomber killed 10 and injured at least 37 outside a crowded Moscow subway station. "We've never had as many terror attacks as we have had under [President Vladimir] Putin," says Vladimir Rhyzhkov, a liberal member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament. "It's unprecedented." So far this year, more than 300 have died--compared to 369 in 2002 and 2003 combined.
Aside from the human tragedy, the attacks threatened to destroy Putin's political credibility, as well. Over the last five years, the Russian president has made repeated proclamations of victory in Chechnya and hasn't budged from his hard-line stance on the issue. Even after last Tuesday's subway bombing, he insisted the terrorists were reacting to the "normalization" of the Chechen crisis. But the school siege seems to have brought Putin to a tipping point, prompting him, for the first time, to turn to the United Nations Security Council to join him in condemning the violence.
This last year, the first of his second term, has been especially rocky. Russians are already up in arms over his decision to convert benefits for veterans and the elderly into cash payments--a piece of legislation that slipped through late last month. Even the initially popular prosecution of Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is beginning to look like a sinister power grab. The string of attacks is sure to bring his popularity to an all-time low. "Fewer and fewer people blame the Chechens, and more and more understand it's the government that's at fault," says Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute for National Strategy in Moscow.
One big question on everyone's mind was what, if anything, was the government doing to protect the population. "In the United States there has not been a single new terrorist act since September 11," says Rhyzhkov. "That tells you our security service is completely ineffective in their fight against terror." The security services, in turn, put the blame back on the government. "We earn the same money as regular policemen," a Russian counterterrorism official told NEWSWEEK, adding that he's forced to spend his own money on basic necessities like notebooks and portable computers. "Until we begin to adequately finance the fight against terrorism, nothing will change."
Even more confounding was the purpose behind the latest attack. Why target a school? It's not the first time such attacks have taken place on Russian soil. In 1994, four Chechens armed with guns and a grenade seized a bus filled with children, teachers and parents in southern Russia. They eventually released the hostages in exchange for a multi-million-dollar ransom and fled to Chechnya in a helicopter. The next year, rebels lead by Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, also said to be behind the school siege, attacked a hospital in southern Russia, killing 33 and injuring 145. Some analysts suspect the attackers had hoped to stir up decades-long ethnic tensions among Ossetians, Chechens and Ingushetians--Ingushetians were believed to be among the attackers--in an effort to destabilize Russia. "It could instigate carnage in the Caucasus on a scale that we've never even dreamed of," says Alexander Malashenko, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center and coauthor of "Russia's Restless Frontier: The Chechnya Factor in Post-Soviet Russia." Other observers are less certain. "I think there may be a wider goal behind this attack which we don't know about yet," says Tom de Waal, a Chechnya specialist for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. But while the pundits ponder, Russians can only wait--and hope for a respite.