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Roots of Recent Terror Incidents in Russia Run Deep, Analysts Say - 2004-09-10

The violent deaths of hundreds of children taken hostage in a school in southern Russia have shocked the world, in a crisis that many are now calling Russia's version of the September 11 terror attacks on the United States. Yet terrorist incidents have been taking place in Russia for years, almost all of them related to the decade-long conflict in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

It took several days to bury all of those killed in the attack on a school in the town of Beslan, where more than 330 people died and hundreds more were wounded. The scale of the tragedy stunned Russia and the rest of the world, particularly because the attack targeted children.

But the Beslan siege is just the latest in a series of attacks mounted by militants during the past decade, including three previous hostage-taking incidents that also claimed many lives.

Linking them together is the long-running war in Chechnya, one of many small republics nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains that divide Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russian troops have been battling Chechen separatist fighters for almost a decade, trying to crush a bid for full independence from Russia.

Moscow accuses Georgia of turning a blind eye to Chechen rebels and their allies, some whom Moscow says take refuge in the border region of Georgia.

Former President Boris Yeltsin first sent troops into Chechnya in 1994 seeking to roll back a declaration of independence made as the Soviet Union fell apart three years earlier. In 1999, Vladimir Putin sent troops back into Chechnya, and rose to power because of his tough approach to Chechnya, promising to bring stability and security to Russia.

As the conflict grinds on, some rebels have turned to acts of terror, mostly suicide bombings. As the number of such attacks increases, more questions are being raised about the hard-line policy pursued by President Putin.

While opposing terror, Western leaders have long encouraged Mr. Putin to seek dialogue with moderate Chechens, such as the republic's former President Aslan Maskhadov.

Mr. Maskhadov is considered a political moderate, and last week, he denied any link to the Beslan school tragedy. But the Kremlin calls all Chechen opposition commanders or leaders terrorists, and officials announced a $10 million reward on information that might lead to Mr. Maskhadov's capture or death.

It is this Kremlin stance that many analysts say is fueling the anger among ordinary Chechens and others from neighboring republics such as Ingushetia, where a rebel attack in June killed about 90 people.

Last Saturday, a visibly-shaken President Putin reacted to the school tragedy in a televised address to the nation. He admitted that Russia's security apparatus had failed to protect the people in Beslan, even admitting that corruption in the poorly paid police and security forces contributed to the ease with which the terrorists were able to carry out their plan. He blamed much of this on the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, saying that Russia failed to understand the complexity and dangers of the new world it found itself in.

"The country has been weakened, and let down its guard in recent years, leaving itself unprotected from both the West and the East, which, in turn, led to extremist attacks," said Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin said Russia is under attack from international terrorists, adding that some of the militants who seized the school may be from Arab countries. Analysts noted that he never mentioned Chechnya in the address, and he promised only to toughen his policy toward the region.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a political analyst with the Institute for Comparative Political Studies in Moscow. He says President Putin cannot change his hard-line policy toward Chechnya, because his public image is built on it. "He based his career on the promise to resolve the issue of Chechnya, on the basis of a very tough and very radical solution, based on Russian forces prevailing over Chechen forces," said Mr. Kagarlitsky. "So, if now you start negotiating, you have to accept that, in reality, that policy did not work."

Human rights groups have long documented abuses committed by Russian forces against civilians in Chechnya.

For example, Russian troops routinely conduct sweeps through Chechen villages in search of rebels. Human rights groups say they often take away the men and boys, many of whom are never heard from again. Many of the Chechen suicide bombers in recent attacks have been women, who are known as "black widows," because they lost their husbands or sons.

Some analysts say that a military response to the terror attacks only worsens the Chechen problem, and that ultimately Mr. Putin may have little choice but to alter course.

"I hope there will be changes, because this policy has been short-sighted, this policy has been incompetent, this policy has been heavy handed. It has led people in Chechnya to be really desperate," said Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian magazine columnist and commentator.

Many Chechens say there is nothing new about their resistance to Russian rule, with rebellions stretching back to the 18th century, when imperial Czarist armies attempted to subdue this fiercely independent mountain people.

In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered that the entire population of Chechnya be deported to Central Asia, along with several other ethnic groups. He accused them of collaborating with the Nazis during the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.

Hundreds-of-thousands of people perished when they were shipped in cattle freight trains across the empty steppes in the dead of winter, only to return in 1957 during the political thaw under Nikita Khrushchev.

Analysts say the bitterness created by this long legacy helps fuel the conflict. And there are signs that the conflict is attracting radical Islamists from the Middle East to fight alongside their Muslim brethren. Experts say some of these people allegedly have links with the al-Qaida terror network, which may be reflected in the increasing sophistication of some recent terrorist attacks.

Many Russians appear resigned to continuing conflict in Chechnya, and with it the likelihood that there will be more acts of terror to come.