Fear of reprisals grow as the burials continue in Beslan

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After a week of unrelenting tragedy, Beslan continued to bury its dead yesterday, as the authorities tried to save their political skins and fears rose that more blood would be spilled.

After a week of unrelenting tragedy, Beslan continued to bury its dead yesterday, as the authorities tried to save their political skins and fears rose that more blood would be spilled.

Clad in black, small groups of residents did what they have done almost continuously since last Sunday; say goodbye to their loved ones and make the grim trek to the town's bleak burial ground.

"We'll be burying our dead for a long time to come," said one man, who said he had lost close family and friends.

"There are still 107 unidentified bodies lying in the morgue. It's been that figure for days now despite the fact that bodies are being taken away by relatives every day."

The authorities were deliberately holding back bodies in giant freezers, he claimed, and only releasing them when other corpses had been recovered so that the figure of 107 remained constant. "They don't want to let on how many people died."

Meanwhile, North Ossetia's septuagenarian president Alexander Dzasokhov was doing his best to save his tarnished political skin. Although he has theoretically fired many of the republic's ministers over the appalling way in which the Beslan school siege was handled, he has repeatedly refused to step down himself.

At least one rally calling for him to stay on has already taken place in Vladikavkaz, the republic's capital, in order to counterbalance an anti-government demonstration, and another is planned. Both events appear to have been artificially orchestrated by his supporters, who are alleged to have press-ganged state employees into attending.

However, it is revelations that at least four of the 32 hostage-takers were from the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia which have really raised fears of fresh bloodshed. North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, and Ingushetia fought a bloody five-day war in 1992 in which up to 800 people were killed. Relations between the two have been strained since.

In the wake of last Friday's slaughter, North Ossetians were quick to blame the Ingush with many mourners vowing that they would have their revenge. Most North Ossetians are Orthodox Christians while the Ingush are Sunni Muslims.

Ingush and Chechen students studying at Vladikavkaz University have already been bussed out "for their own safety" and in the days after the attack, a huge crowd headed for the Prigorodny district of Northern Ossetia where many Ingush live. The authorities managed to stop them before violence erupted but tensions are running high.

The Prigorodny district, which includes the sprawling village of Chermen, is an obvious flashpoint for violence since it was the scene of the first ethnic conflict in the former Soviet Union. Ingush fighters tried to seize it from North Ossetia in 1992 and were only repelled after bloody clashes which left hundreds dead. The land used to be part of Ingushetia but was given to North Ossetia by Stalin in 1944 after he decided to exile the entire Ingush and Chechen people to Central Asia on the spurious grounds that they were minded to collaborate with the Nazis.

The Ingush and the Chechens were eventually allowed to return in the 1950s by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev but when they got back to Prigorodny they found their homes inhabited by North Ossetians. It seems hard to imagine anyone fighting over this flat, desolate piece of territory. The road from Vladikavkaz passes through a bleak industrial wasteland; an enormous zinc factory rots on the left while eerie factories, which have long since ceased to make anything, stagnate under a rain-filled sky.

Armed soldiers waiting for trouble are parked up on the village's outskirts and two heavily fortified check points are positioned at either end. The village seemed quiet enough yesterday. Its Ingush residents insist, however, that they are living in fear of their lives.

Ruslan Chemklikov, a 25-year-old Ingush says it's wrong to point the finger at his people.

"What happened at the school was terrible but the terrorists were not just Ingush, they came from all over. I feel sorry for the innocent children but a proper investigation needs to be carried out before jumping to conclusions."