This litany of horrors proves that brutal repression does not stop terrorism

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One of the central fallacies of the war on terror is that a repressive crackdown is the solution. It is a seductive belief. It appeals to an outraged nation's thirst for revenge - and to its instinct that the enemy can be incapacitated. There are those in Israel who say it works; where that nation has a massive security wall, there are no suicide bombs, and where it has not... the grim events of this week complete the answer.

One of the central fallacies of the war on terror is that a repressive crackdown is the solution. It is a seductive belief. It appeals to an outraged nation's thirst for revenge - and to its instinct that the enemy can be incapacitated. There are those in Israel who say it works; where that nation has a massive security wall, there are no suicide bombs, and where it has not... the grim events of this week complete the answer.

But Chechnya gives the lie to this notion. Yesterday, every parent's nightmare unfolded as a school full of children in the Russian province of North Ossetia were taken hostage by armed fighters wearing suicide-bomb belts. It happened on the first day of term, at a back-to-school assembly when the hall held more than 200 pupils. Desperate parents paced back and forth outside the school, hearing of threats to murder 50 young hostages if one terrorist was killed. Children were placed in the windows as human shields to stop the authorities storming the building.

This is only the latest in a litany of horrors in recent days. At the weekend, a female suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a busy Moscow station. The group claiming responsibility said it, too, brought down the Russian planes that crashed within minutes of each other last week, killing 89 people.

The latest violence may be a protest against the sham elections in Chechnya at the weekend in which the Kremlin's hand-picked presidential candidate won by a landslide after his main challenger was barred from running on a technicality. But the bitterness goes back much further. Two weeks ago, 200 rebels launched a coordinated attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Two months ago, armed rebels mounted a deadly cross-border raid into Russia. In May, the Moscow-backed Chechen president was killed in a bomb blast at a stadium in Grozny. The list stretches on - back to 1994, when the first major hostage drama took place just after Russian forces marched into the breakaway republic. The rebels in the Ossetia school siege are demanding the release of Chechens taken prisoner in previous raids, and want Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya entirely.

The response of President Putin to each assault is a further tightening of his bloody crackdown on the province. His brutal campaign of repression - which has included the razing of large parts of Grozny, the murder of civilians in fearsome military raids and unremitting abuses of human rights in prisons - shows no let-up. Yet whenever the methods he is using to fight terrorism are shown to be utterly ineffective, he merely intensifies them. The United States and Britain turn a blind eye to all this, since Mr Putin veils his policies in the rhetoric of the "war on terror". But this is a con. The rebellion in Chechnya is more akin to a struggle for national liberation than an outburst of religiously ideological fanaticism against the modern secular world.

Or at least it was. The danger is that warmongers like Mr Putin and Mr Bush have, in their rhetoric and their actions, played into the hands of that minority which wants to see the struggle in Chechnya as part of al-Qa'ida's apocalyptic holy war on secular modernism. Militant Islamic fundamentalism is what infected the Chechen rebels who took 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre in 2002, and provoked a siege in which 41 attackers and 129 hostages died when Russian troops stormed the theatre.

The lesson of the Moscow theatre siege is that when such a crisis occurs, it may already be too late to avoid the innocent being hurt. Action is needed before the situation comes to such a horrifying head. In the long run, military action is no alternative to negotiation. Mr Putin must put an end to the war in Chechnya and begin discussions on the province's aspiration to self determination, so that a political settlement can be reached that can be put to the Chechen people in internationally-supervised elections. Unless that happens, the Russian people will be condemned to sit and wait for the next terrifying crisis.

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