Beslan, Sept. 4 (Agencies): Anger and anguish tore through Russia today as the enormity of the school carnage hit the country with full force: 322 people, half of them children, had died in the bloodbath in Beslan.
In a visit at the dead of night to the hospital in the town of Beslan, the scene of the drama not far from Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin ordered a clampdown in the Caucasus and warned separatist sympathisers they would be viewed as “accomplices of terrorism”.
The death toll after Friday’s bloody climax to the two-day siege included 155 school children, many of them held inside a gym by their captors, and confirmed the episode as the grimmest hostage-taking of modern times.
Officials backed up for the first time media reports that the separatists had taken more than 1,000 people hostage when they stormed into the school on Wednesday.
A total of 26 militants, 10 of them Arabs according to Russian officials, had staged the hostage seizure, said deputy prosecutor-general Sergei Fridinsky. All had been killed – one was snatched from security forces and lynched by enraged relatives of the victims.
Putin said he had ordered Beslan and the surrounding region of North Ossetia to be sealed off in follow-up operations by security forces.
“One of the tasks pursued by the terrorists was to stoke ethnic hatred, to blow up the whole of our North Caucasus,” he told security officials. “Anyone who feels sympathetic towards such provocation will be viewed as accomplices of terrorists and terrorism.”
The large number of dead left barely a family untouched in Beslan. Normally a backwater of the Caucasus with a population of 30,000, the town was a swirl of grief, anger and uncertainty.
Some people vented their anger at Putin, unusual given his popularity, for visiting the town so briefly and accused him of posturing for television cameras instead of meeting its traumatised residents.
“Putin came here at four this morning. He saw no one and talked to no one,” said Boris, whose neighbour and her family disappeared.
“He just wanted to show the world how young and handsome he is but he hasn’t helped and he won’t help and he can’t stop this happening again.”
“Everyone in this town has lost someone,” cried Alan, looking for news of his sister who had been at the school. “What they say on television is a lie. There could be 600 dead.”
In a sombre television address, Putin, dressed in a dark suit and standing beside the Russian flag, denounced the gunmen who had attacked “defenceless children”.
But, in the first criticism of the troops’ handling of the siege, he said Russians had a right to demand more from security forces in times of crisis.
His harsh tone in his quick visit to Beslan suggested he had no plan to relax his determination to crush mainly Muslim Chechnya’s rebellion and keep it within Russia, using tactics long criticised by human rights activists.
Moscow also bridled quickly at a querulous statement by the European Union’s Dutch presidency demanding an explanation for the bloodshed. Russia said this was out of keeping with solidarity shown by other countries and denounced it as “blasphemous”. Some EU ministers later appeared to back away from the statement.
Explosives and arms used by the gunmen had been smuggled into the school well in advance during summer building work, Interfax quoted a source as saying.