Anti-terrorism demonstration draws masses of Russians

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 8 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of people answered a government call and rallied outside the Kremlin on Tuesday in a show of solidarity against terrorism, nearly a week after militants seized a school in southern Russia in a standoff that claimed more than 350 lives, many of them children.

Mourners in the grief-stricken city of Beslan lowered caskets into the damp earth in a third day of burials from the siege, which officials have blamed on Chechens and other Islamic militants.

The Moscow crowd of about 130,000 people — some bearing banners saying, "We won't give Russia to terrorists" and "The enemy will be crushed; victory will be ours" — observed a moment of silence at 5 p.m. on the cobblestones near St. Basil's Cathedral, adjacent to the Kremlin.

The hourlong demonstration, which was organized by a pro-government trade union, echoed President Vladimir Putin's call for unity in vast, multiethnic Russia and sought to rally its people against enemies he says have aid from abroad.

"I have been crying for so many days and I came here to feel that we are actually together," said Vera Danilina.

Although some in Beslan have criticized Putin for not meeting with survivors of the tragedy, the president has avoided the brunt of the anger over the attacks.

"Of course I support him, and it's necessary to be even more harsh with terrorists," said Galina Kiselyova, a history teacher who was at the Moscow rally. "We cannot let go of Chechnya — the Caucasus is ours."

"Putin, we're with you," read a banner at the rally.

The demonstration was heavily advertised on state-controlled television, with prominent actors appealing to citizens to turn out. Banners bore the white, blue and red of Russia's flag, and speakers echoed Putin's statements that terrorists must be crushed.

"We came here to show that we are not indifferent to the series of terrorist acts that have taken place," said Alexander, a student at a Moscow technical college who did not give his surname.

However, the 18-year-old criticized Russian authorities' handling of the hostage crisis, and noted the rally was organized by authorities who "told us where and when to come" and was not spontaneous.

Militants seized the school in Beslan on Sept. 1, a day after a suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people and just over a week after two Russian passenger planes crashed following explosions and killed all 90 people aboard — attacks authorities suspect were linked to the war in Chechnya.

Russian prosecutors Tuesday said authorities had arrested two people suspected in the plane bombings. The suspects were not identified. The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed source as saying one of the men is suspected of selling plane tickets to two Chechen woman believed to have carried out the Aug. 24 bombings.

The man, originally from southern Russia's Krasnodar region, made money by illegally selling tickets at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, Interfax said. Both planes that crashed took off from that airport.

In footage broadcast Tuesday on NTV television, hundreds of hostages were shown seated in the school's cramped gym. Many of them had their hands behind their heads. A thick streak of blood stained the wood floor.

NTV said the pictures — which showed the hostages sitting beneath a string of explosives dangling from a basketball hoop — was recorded by the assailants.

Football-sized bundles of explosives were attached to wires and strings hanging from a basketball hoop. One attacker in camouflage and a black hood stood amid the hostages with a boot on what NTV said was a book rigged with a detonator.

In an interview late Monday, Putin angrily denied his government should overhaul its policy on Chechnya because of the attacks.

The world should have "no more questions about our policy in Chechnya" after the attackers shot children in the back, he told visiting foreign journalists and academics. He said the Chechen militant cause was aimed at fomenting conflict in southern Russia and breaking up the country.

"This is all about Russia's territorial integrity," he was quoted as saying.

Putin also said his government would conduct an internal investigation but no public inquiry into the siege, warning that a parliamentary probe could turn into "a political show."

Two opposition politicians have called for an investigation, including into whether the authorities had prior information about planned terrorist attacks and what the government was doing to stabilize the situation in Chechnya, where deadly fighting persists a decade after Russian forces first moved to crush separatists.

Putin rejected calls for negotiations with Chechen rebel representatives.

"Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" Britain's Guardian newspaper quoted Putin as saying. ". . .Why should we talk to people who are child-killers?"

Differing with Putin, the Bush administration said only a political settlement could end the Chechen crisis. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials had met with Chechens in the past, although "we do not meet with terrorists." There may be additional meetings in the future, though none is planned, he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld condemned the killings in Beslan, saying "civilized people can only express sympathy and solidarity with the Russian people."

The Foreign Ministry said Russia will take new steps seeking the extradition of people it says are linked with terrorism, including Chechen rebel representatives Akhmed Zakayev and Ilyas Akhmadov. Zakayev, an envoy for separatist former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, has been granted refugee status in Britain and Akhmadov in the United States.

Britain's Home Office Tuesday refused to comment on whether it had received a request from Moscow for Zakayev's extradition.

A prosecutor said Monday the school attackers belonged to a group led by Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, and a man identified by authorities as a detained hostage-taker said on state television that he was told Basayev and Maskhadov ordered the attack.

Zakayev, in Britain, denied Maskhadov was involved and alleged the detainee's televised statement had been extracted under torture.

In a statement faxed to media, he also said officials' statements about the presence of Arab and African fighters among the captors was disinformation.

In his interview, Putin said 10 of the attackers were of Arab descent, one was from North Ossetia and that others belonged to various ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union.

Maskhadov's brother-in-law, Shirvani Semiyev, said he was among up to 50 people taken to a Russian military base outside Chechnya's capital of Grozny on Friday and held for two days. All were relatives of Maskhadov and Basayev.

Semiyev said the men and boys were blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, and forced to kneel on cold stone. He said a military officer questioned him about Maskhadov's whereabouts and his attitude to the school seizure.

On Saturday night, Semiyev said, a doctor came and asked if they needed medical care. Then a colonel came, said "there had been a mistake, and that we would be put on a helicopter for home," Semiyev said. "And we were actually brought home by helicopter."

In an official statement cited by a pro-Kremlin Web site, the Russian Federal Security Service spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, said federal forces had taken action to protect the rebel leaders' relatives from vigilante attempts at revenge for the school tragedy.

The official death toll of the three-day siege, which ended in deadly explosions and gunfire, stood at 335, plus 30 attackers; the regional health ministry said 326 of the dead had been hostages, and the Emergency Situations Ministry said 156 of the dead were children.

At the muddy cemetery in Beslan where gravediggers have opened up two new tracts in the past three days, relatives opened the tiny coffin of 8-year-old Vasily Reshetnyak, touched his forehead and kissed him goodbye. A favorite toy — a red car — was placed alongside his body.


Contributing: Burt Herman.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS