This atrocity is sickening. But Mr Putin must not unleash another crackdown

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The Independent Online

Today the sympathy of the world is with a small town in North Ossetia that was little known outside the Caucasus before this week. It is difficult to imagine the suffering of the children who were held for two days in a school gym by Chechen terrorists, or the anguish of the relatives who watched the siege develop from outside. Everyone hoped it would end peacefully and that the hostages would be released unharmed. But that turned out to be a vain hope. Now the town of Beslan must bury its dead and count the cost of the siege's bloody denouement. The fact that so many of those who died were children makes this episode all the more harrowing.

What occurred in Beslan is more than just a tragedy for one town. It is the latest in a series of attacks on the security of a whole nation. In recent weeks Russia has been convulsed by the ruthless effectiveness of Chechen terrorists. First came the destruction of two civilian aircraft in mid-flight. Then there was an explosion on the Moscow underground. And now comes this siege, in which terrorists surrounded themselves with children and threatened to shoot 50 for every one of their number who was killed by Russian security forces.

The first question in the aftermath of this terrible episode must be whether those security forces did the right thing. When terrorists took over a Moscow theatre two years ago, gas was pumped in to disable them. But this also had the effect of killing 129 hostages. The Russian government was criticised for storming in when dialogue, or at least better preparation, might have saved lives. It is harder to criticise the rescue operation this time. The security forces claim they decided to act only when gunmen began to fire on fleeing hostages during an abortive operation by the authorities to collect dead bodies from around the school. If this turns out to be true, there was clearly no option but to intervene. The terrorists had demonstrated their sickening barbarity by killing anyone who resisted when they took control of the school on Wednesday morning. The security forces were justified in assuming the terrorists would make good on their vile promises to slaughter their hostages and had to move quickly to save lives.

The next question is what Russia ought to do now. President Vladimir Putin called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council this week to get international backing for his handling of the situation. This at least hints at a more multilateral approach to the problem of Chechnya. In the past, hostage crises have been deemed purely internal matters to be solved however Russia saw fit.

The very worst response would be a punitive crackdown on Chechnya, of the kind that President Putin has conducted so often in the past. A policy inspired by vengeance will only end up victimising innocent Chechens and adding fuel to the resentful fervour of the terrorists.

This atrocity is truly sickening and it is right to grieve for those whose lives were taken so cruelly. But inflicting further suffering on the people of Chechnya is no way to honour the memory of those who have died in Beslan.