Russian anti-terror reforms may threaten democracy, warns Bush

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Russia rounded angrily on America yesterday, making it clear it was in no mood to be lectured on democracy or fighting terrorism after the Beslan school massacre.

George Bush warned last night that an overhaul of Russia's security system "could undermine democracy".

Despite saying America stood "shoulder to shoulder" with Russia in its fight against terrorism, Mr Bush said he had developed concerns "about the decisions that are being made in Russia".

Mr Putin's sweeping new anti-terror reforms, which have been presented as a panacea for terror, will ­ among other things ­ strip Russian citizens of the right to elect regional representatives who would be appointed by Mr Putin in future. In addition, all deputies would be elected on a party-list basis, a move that could squeeze out independent, anti-Kremlin voices.

Mr Bush said: "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy", in remarks which echoed criticisms of Mr Putin's reforms made this week by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Earlier, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov responded angrily to Mr Powell, making it clear Russia was in no mood to be lectured on democracy or fighting terrorism after the Beslan school massacre.

Mr Powell had suggested Russia appeared to be "moving toward the rear with respect to democratic reforms".

Mr Lavrov strongly defended the reforms yesterday, and said Moscow would respond to the terror threat as it saw fit. "The processes under way in Russia are our internal affair," he said.

"For our part, we do not comment on the US system of presidential elections," he added, referring to the "hanging chads" 2000 election fiasco.

Mr Lavrov's anger was not enough, however, to quell similar international criticism.

Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, told the European Parliament: "I hope the government of the Russian Federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin."

The war of words erupted as frightened children in Beslan went back to school for the first time since 1 September.

Survivors of School Number One were exempt, however, and many children from the town's other schools stayed away on their worried parents' instructions. Those pupils who did turn up observed a minute's silence for their dead peers.

Meanwhile, Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, moved to appoint a new government to replace the one he sacked over the fiasco.

Bizarrely, he promoted his former press secretary Lev Dzugaev ­ who told the world's media there were 354 hostages in the school, as opposed to almost 1,200 ­ to Minister for Culture and Mass Communications.

The Russian daily Kommersant yesterday published a gory photo-montage of 30 of the dead Beslan hostage-takers; many of the grainy black and white faces were severely disfigured due to the extreme nature of the siege.

The authorities say they have put names to only 14 of the 30 images. They believe they have identified the group's leaders as Ruslan Khachbarov, Magomed Evloev and Vladimir Khodov.

Yesterday's images included the severely degraded faces of two female suicide bombers and the smashed face of an unknown terrorist, torn to pieces by an angry Beslan crowd.

The only terrorist to survive is a 24-year-old, Nurpasha Kulaev; he has already been charged with nine criminal counts including murder and terrorism, and is likely to face life imprisonment.

Separately, details of how two Chechen black widows, or female suicide bombers boarded two planes which they blew up in August, with the loss of 90 lives, were made public yesterday. One of them paid a black-market ticket seller £40 to squeeze her on the flight at the last minute, avoiding key security checks, and the other £60. A corrupt airline employee was paid £20 to turn a blind eye.

The FSB security service said two other black widows who arrived in Moscow with the suicide bombers were still at large.