Taken by surprise, army solution fails again

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The Independent Online

Nobody really expected the Beslan school siege to end without bloodshed. The least worst option was, first, to prolong negotiations and to get as many hostages out as possible. Second, to minimise hostage casualties when the hostage-takers either started killing or just panicked.

It was obvious that heavily armed extremists wearing bombs around their waists were ready, probably determined, to die. The prevailing Russian view that there is little point in negotiating with such people has some merit. But yesterday's events will inevitably lead to accusations of military incompetence, that the Russians do not understand the concept of "minimum force" and are determined to pursue a military, rather than a political solution for Chechnya.

The regional head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Major-General Valeriy Andreyev, said last night that "no military action was planned". That could be wilfully misinterpreted. But it looks as if the Russian forces were genuinely planning to try to end the siege as best they could. Then something went wrong, and they were forced to act and caught, it appears, on the hop.

There was, it seems, an agreement that the bodies of those already dead - killed, presumably, by the hostage-takers during their takeover of the school or selected for execution afterwards - should be taken away. Then, there were explosions, and hostages, who had been kept without food or water in terrifying and degrading conditions for two days and nights, started fleeing. A military operation, one must always remember, is not done on a patient who is unconscious and tied down. The hostage-takers fired at the fleeing hostages and the Russian special forces responded.

But there were not just two sides in this tragedy. It was not merely Russian security forces versus extremists. The hostages themselves - hot, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, terrified - were still capable of playing their own part. How many of us, contemplating the fate of those awaiting execution, have said to ourselves, "Why don't they just run for it?" In this case, some of them did. And there was also a very Russian, or south Russian, factor. This is a gun culture, steeped and imbued with ideas of revenge, vendetta and not a little organised crime. Major-General Andreyev admitted: "Local people with arms also opened fire." He also said that civilians impeded the movements of the security forces.

How armed locals could be allowed to interrupt and influence a military operation of such enormous political and security significance is a question that must be addressed, but senior Russian security advisers were concentrating last night on how some of the hostage-takers - perhaps 13 - got away. Clearly the cordon was not as tight as it should have been, a further indication that this was no precipitate, or even deliberate but badly planned operation.

These are two questions which the Russian security authorities will need to answer when the full details of yesterday's events are analysed.

In most other developed countries, the area would have been sealed and civilian onlookers excluded more effectively. But apart from that, would any other country's security forces have dealt with such a horrendous situation better?

Hostage situations often go wrong. The Waco siege in the US is a good example. British onlookers will naturally compare the messy denouement of the Beslan school siege and the Nord-Ost Theatre siege in Moscow with the clinical precision of the SAS's triumph at the Iranian embassy more than 20 years ago. But such comparisons are meaningless.

The number of hostages held at Beslan is not yet confirmed, but initial estimates of 350 have been inflated to 1,000 or even 1,500. Operations on such a scale, involving such numbers of hostages and large numbers of terrorists - up to 25 in Beslan, equating in strength to a regular army platoon - are a completely different issue.

The influence of al-Qa'ida, with its emphasis on spectacular attacks on a vast scale, has spun off to other terrorist organisations. A terrorist incident on the scale of the Iranian embassy siege today would be considered trivial.

Christopher Bellamy is professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University