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Beslan mothers in Moscow showdown with Putin

The mothers were speaking midway through the first anniversary of the massacre in which 331 people died after pro-Chechen terrorists seized a local school and demanded Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya.

Of the dead, 186 were children.

The mothers, who have organized themselves into a powerful pressure group, accuse Mr Putin of being ultimately responsible for the fact that the siege and its aftermath was spectacularly mishandled, that so many people died and for the fact that, 12 months later, official investigations have still not been completed.

They also claim that the ongoing inquiries are biased and officials guilty of corruption and incompetence, which aided the terrorists, are being let off the hook.

State TV yesterday showed a sombre-looking Mr Putin doing his best to deal with an extremely difficult situation. He defended his own behaviour and that of the authorities, made a series of promises and undertakings and showed a human side which he rarely allows the outside world to see. He also explained why he had chosen to invite the mothers to meet him on September 2, midway through their symbolically crucial three-day first anniversary mourning period, a decision which the mothers had argued was insulting. He had, he said, wanted time to gather together the results of the investigations so far. Anneta Gadieva, one of the mothers, said her delegation was broadly satisfied with the president's behaviour but said it had not got answers on all points.

"Our main demand was that he repent and publicly ask our people for forgiveness," she said. "He didn't give us any definitive answer to that. He just looked at us very sympathetically."

In most other areas though, he appears to have said the right things.

"In general we are pleased with the discussion," said Mrs Gadieva. "We can describe it as constructive. He seemed well-informed on some issues and, on others, misinformed but in general we are satisfied. We are happy that we found the strength to come to the meeting and voice our complaints. As for how the complaints will be handled we'll just have to wait and see." Mrs Gadieva said the delegation had not asked Mr Putin to testify in court about how the siege was handled. That is likely to relieve the Kremlin.

Mr Putin said he had declared September 3, the day the siege was broken, an official day of solidarity with all victims of terror attacks. He also revealed he had ordered monuments to the victims of Beslan to be constructed across Russia.

"It's difficult to start this meeting," he said. "Any mother, father or normal person can understand the feelings which you are experiencing. I know it all, I have been briefed about the problems that concern you." Mr Putin claimed no government was able to protect its citizens from terror attacks, pointing to America, the UK and Spain.

He said post-Soviet Russia had been badly weakened by the Chechen conflict and the post-Communist economic legacy.