Commandos Storm A Russian School Where Militants Held Hundreds Hostage
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RAY SUAREZ: Paul Quinn-Judge, welcome. Are Russian soldiers in control of the school site now? Have they found everybody who might still be alive and rounded up anybody there was to arrest?
PAUL QUINN-JUDGE: They’re pretty much in control of the school site, though it took them longer than expected, I think.
There was still some sort of fighting going on there and a lot of explosions happening still into the early evening. Have they found everybody? Nobody knows.
For a start, they don’t seem to know how many people were there. They were saying… the police and the paramilitary were saying, during the course of this operation, they were going around the town saying to groups of young men that some of the guerrillas may have broken out and they should look for Islamic looking people in the crowd who changed their clothing.
There’s been some more shooting and a few explosions tonight, and it’s not clear whether this is anything serious or just mopping up… wrapping up a few loose ends.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there any better chronology available on how this all came down, how the gunfight and the raid was triggered?
PAUL QUINN-JUDGE: No. There are two totally divergent theories going on. One is that… the government’s version, which is basically that they were prepared to wait for days yet and try to come to a peaceful conclusion.
That doesn’t quite explain how they began to plant an information blackout on their own… on the state’s TV channels last night.
It doesn’t explain why they brought up two battle tanks on the evening of the second, brought in some of their counter terror teams and a lot more of what passes for their crack paramilitaries.
There’s an assumption by many people that they were waiting for a chance to stage an assault, and this was a good one.
On the other hand, you have to say that the guerrillas were trying to provoke the Russians into doing something because this time, the guerrillas really did seem like people who were absolutely and fanatically committed to dying for their cause and taking whoever they needed with them.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the number of hostage takers hasn’t yet been determined. Do we know anything else about the guerrillas at this point?
PAUL QUINN-JUDGE: What officials have been saying — and they were sort of boasting quietly all week that they had pretty good bugs in and around the school and they were listening to most conversations that the guerrillas were having — say that as a mixed team of Chechens, of Ingush — who are the neighboring republics of both Chechnya and Northern Ossetia — and a number of guerrillas from North Ossetia themselves.
The chances are that they have contacts with Shamil Basayev and they’re perhaps under his control. Basayev is one of the most radicalized and really ruthless and Islamicized of the Chechen guerrilla leaders.
They hadn’t been heard of in a group like this previously, but it looks very much as if extensions of those who had done things like the Moscow theater siege, and conceivably people who planned the bombing of the trains a couple weeks ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Wire service reports say Russian officials have alleged that some of the hostage takers are Arabs. Do we know if that’s true?
PAUL QUINN-JUDGE: Yeah. That came out this afternoon from the president of North Ossetia.
It’s strange that throughout the week those officials were talking as if they had some detailed knowledge at least of the ethnic composition of the guerrillas, but they hadn’t mentioned that. It’s a new assertion.
Perhaps they discovered someone, or perhaps they feel it’s an important political propaganda point to make, because the Kremlin does consistently stress that their war in Chechnya — and I think in the future they’ll be saying the war in the north caucuses — is part of the overall war against Islamic terrorism.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Quinn-Judge from Time, thanks for joining us.
PAUL QUINN-JUDGE: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now are Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank; he’s also executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. And Yo’av Karny, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace. An independent journalist, he’s author of “Highlanders,” a book about the Caucasus. Welcome to you both.
Since the details of what happened today are so very murky, including who triggered this, let’s get back and try to give people some context for understanding this.
Glen Howard, beginning with you, you heard the description from the Russians about who was in the building. What do you make of the makeup of the group, at least as described by the Russians?
GLEN HOWARD: I think first of all based upon what we’ve heard is it’s definitely not entirely a Chechen composition as many people were speculating that it was largely a Chechen group. What we’ve heard from Paul Quinn-Judge is that the group was ethnically varied, including some reports say there were Russians and there’s Ossetians and people from the north caucuses.
MARGARET WARNER: So these are all different regions of the north caucuses?
GLEN HOWARD: That’s correct.
MARGARET WARNER: And what do they want, Yo’av Karny? Is it Chechen independence or something more?
YO’AV KARNY: Well, clearly, this is an ultimate proof of how the independence movement of Chechnya has degenerated in the past 15 years or so.
They began in 1990, demanding sovereignty and were fighting genuinely for Soviet self-determination for a little while. But ever since the first round of the war with the Russians in the mid 1990s, there had been a steady deterioration toward goals that went far beyond the original ones.
MARGARET WARNER: What led to that, I mean, why?
YO’AV KARNY: Well, that’s a good question. I imagine the enormity of suffering during the first war, the destruction, the dislocation all made it possible for the Chechen population to be radicalized and fall under the influence of foreign Islamic missionaries, ones that used to be referred to as Wahaby’s, now more popularly as al-Qaida.
And they sort of hijacked the cause of Chechen independence and shifted it elsewhere.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, that this – that what we all thought of in the early 90s as the Chechen independence movement or separatist movement has become broader and part of a worldwide Islamic movement?
GLEN HOWARD: I would disagree. I believe that the independence movement in Chechnya is there’s always been these allegations spread by the Russians that there’s a large number of Arabs there’s in Chechnya, and at best it’s always been a small number of people that are in — and the war has gone on for five years and been cut off from the outside world, 100,000 Russian troops occupied Chechnya.
There’s no revolving door between the Middle East and Chechnya, certainly not now.
MARGARET WARNER: Though quite a few Chechens have certainly been arrested or killed in both Afghanistan and Pakistan?
GLEN HOWARD: Well, the reports about Afghanistan are they very much can be questioned or debated because there’s really no hard evidence about Chechens in Afghanistan.
But the real question is about the radicalization of what we call the Chechen resistance movement. And that’s more as the brutal side of this war has gone on it’s created increasingly people are very desperate and anxious to use any means possible to advance their cause.
MARGARET WARNER: Yo’av Karny, go back then to what they really thought they could accomplish here, and again the details are murky. President Putin’s office, one advisor said a couple of days ago that they had a demand for Chechen independence and also for the release of some Ingush rebels that have been arrested.
But, I mean, is there, did they really think, do you think, that this kind of a hostage taking would lead to that?
YO’AV KARNY: To begin with, I think that it’s highly improbable that the people involved in this kind of operation are really genuinely interested in Chechnya independence.
Chechnya came close to having independence in the late 1990s and it is through the lack of discipline and the continued destabilization of these elements within the Chechen society that Chechnya lost their opportunity.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean because then the Russians went back in?
YO’AV KARNY: Yes, indeed. And they served Chechnya on a silver platter to Russian generals who were bent on revenge, and they served themselves on a silver platter to Vladimir Putin, who was seeking a cause that would establish him as the leading contender for the presidency at that time.
But I think that we are really entering a twilight zone, we are reaching a sort of intellectual wall of incomprehension. We really cannot define their intentions. Do they really think that through the seizure of school and the abuse of hundreds of young children they could advance a cause?
I think we are really falling back to a state of mind that was characteristic of European politics in the late 19th, early 20th century of pure anarchism and Nihilism intended to shake the foundations of society. I can’t see any way of rationalizing this.
MARGARET WARNER: And why would they attack in North Osettia?
GLEN HOWARD: I think that the purpose of North Osettia is first of all that that region has been led by, if it’s true, it was being led by Ingush was designed to further undermine a part of the north caucuses.
North Ossetians have been sympathetic to Moscow, but there’s also a Muslim element of the population there.
MARGARET WARNER: But it is mostly Christian, is that right?
GLEN HOWARD: Correct, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: So what, is it to show they can strike in the heartland of Russia?
GLEN HOWARD: That’s right. To strike anywhere and as evidence has shown with the counseling of two airliners in one week and a Moscow metro bombing, suicide bombing that occurred and now this event that was going to be a protracted hostage crisis, there’s the Chechens or whoever was behind it was trying to bringing the whole issue of Chechnya’s withdrawal of Russian troops full circle, is trying to bring this to the point to where to force Putin to make up his mind and do something about ending the war in Chechnya. That is my impression.
MARGARET WARNER: So you still think that there is a political objective here?
GLEN HOWARD: Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: A negotiated settlement of some sort.
GLEN HOWARD: It’s very similar to what happened in 1995 with the raid of Budennovsk that led to negotiations that started negotiations ending the first war and I think that the side that was behind this, there’s an effort here, and effort to be a replay of that.
MARGARET WARNER: As Glen Howard just pointed out and we know, there have been all these other incidents, including of course, the bombing of those two airplanes, are these Chechen rebels and their fellow travelers, Mr. Karny, able to pretty much operate with impunity, I mean, is Russian law enforcement and the military powerless here?
YO’AV KARNY: Well, you know, the Russians can not possibly control the mountainous terrain — beyond their control for about 80 years — and throughout most of the 19th century. It’s not all that difficult to throw mayhem in a country that vast.
But I think that to the extent that the Chechens have a political way of thinking, and perhaps I shouldn’t say the Chechens, those individual Chechens involved in this, they are making sure, unlike the events in the mid 1990s, that Russian public opinion was really galvanize around the government.
In assuming that this war, hateful and unpopular and bloody as it is, is inevitable, has to be fought to the bitter end because in the Chechen enemies you find people who are removed from the realm of rationality. But perhaps we should talk a little bit about the context, which is extensive human rights violations in Chechnya by calculation of a major human rights organization in Moscow, they are as extensive as they were in the Stalin era, 44 disappearances for every 1,000 Chechens — through massive abuse, rape, imprisonment, disappearances, abductions and so on.
People do reach a level of despair that could really render them vulnerable to ideas coming from the likes of al-Qaida.
MARGARET WARNER: And irrational in our terms, essentially.
YO’AV KARNY: Indeed.
MARGARET WARNER: So very briefly, from the two of you, do you think, and you’re a believer in getting to a negotiated solution, do you think that today’s incident makes that more likely, particularly in its impact on the Russian public and President Putin, or less likely?
GLEN HOWARD: I think it creates some likelihood that it’s more movement in that direction.
When I was in Moscow two weeks ago a former Kremlin official told me that he believes that if they wanted to, they could get political negotiations, he could find President Maskhadov, who is the last democratically elected president of Chechnya, and leading the resistance, that he could find him in two days and start negotiations.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean find him in two days?
GLEN HOWARD: He’s up in the mountains leading the resistance movement. So there is a possibility – at least some former Kremlin officials think that there is a possibility of a negotiated settlement and still believe in it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave there it, but more later. Thank you both.